Reaction ranges from “I didn’t see that coming” to “storybook.”
Already, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke single-season home run record is his — with eight regular-season games and the postseason remaining.
|CUTHRELL SEASON STATS|
As a representative of the NCAA Division II ranks, he joins 59 Division I players on the Midseason Watch List for the USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award, which salutes the country’s top collegiate baseball player.
But Collins Cuthrell simply prefers to downplay all the attention and attempts to continue enjoying his final guaranteed opportunity to play baseball.
Cuthrell, a product of Rocky Mount High, graduated from Barton College last May with degrees in business and sports management — but also a year of baseball eligibility remaining. Which was the result of sitting out the vast part of the 2014 season with a wrist injury.
Playing a final season of baseball at Barton as a graduate student wasn’t economically feasible. Cuthrell, now age 23, considered the UNC Wilmington’s graduate program but wound up at UNC Pembroke.
And has he ever created a stir as the starting third baseman for a Braves squad that has compiled a 31-10 record, is nationally ranked as high as No. 18 in Division II and is bidding for regular-season supremacy in the rugged Peach Belt Conference.
After a 1-for-3 performance that included a double, three runs scored, three walks and an RBI against his former team Wednesday afternoon, Cuthrell was batting a robust .451.
— Collins Cuthrell
But his other numbers are even more staggering.
Cuthrell has belted an astonishing 22 home runs — which is tops in all three NCAA divisions. The total eclipses the previous UNC Pembroke single-season record of 16. Equally eye-popping are 63 RBIs and 64 runs scored — in just 41 games.
Cuthrell chuckles and admits he agrees with those who reacted that they “didn’t see that coming.” However, he assures he’s benefiting from again being healthy and from his age, acknowledging: “I’ve been there.”
“I’m not really sure how to explain it,” he continued. “I didn’t really expect to see what’s going on to [happen]. All the coaches have worked really hard with me since I’ve been here and it’s paying off.”
Those in Cuthrell’s midst note he’s seeing the baseball extremely well and is not missing pitches.
“I’m swinging it pretty well,” Cuthrell responded. “I just kind of want to make sure I keep on doing that. Everything the coaches have been helping me with, I trying to let that happen. I don’t know … I just try to stay relaxed at the plate.”
He described Wednesday’s return to Barton as “nervewracking” but added: “I got to see a lot of people.”
Batting in the No. 3 spot, Cuthrell failed to hit a home run in the two games against his former teammates but doubled twice and departed with best wishes from Barton head coach Josh Simmons, former teammate Mitchell Wheeler and others.
Cuthrell modestly basked in acclaim from the previous week — when he batted .500 (9 for 18) and slugged four home runs among six extra-base hits. That spectacular output garnered him recognition as Division II Southeast Region Hitter of the Week and Peach Belt Conference Player of the Week.
UNC Pembroke head coach Paul O’Neil commented that he expected Cuthrell to play first base and bat in the middle of the lineup. But early season shifts resulted in Cuthrell landing the third-base job and O’Neil insists his biggest improvement has been defensively.
“He’s a great kid,” O’Neil praised Cuthrell. “I mean he’s a great, great kid. He’s an extremely hard-working individual; he wants to be successful. The third thing, he has been very coachable.”
Of Cuthrell’s record-setting season, the Braves’ 15th-year head coach responded: “Nobody could have expected this. We knew he was a good player and, if this is going to happen to somebody, why not him? I hope he gets drafted.”
Cuthrell hit for average and occasional power in earning All-Conference Carolinas acclaim with the Bulldogs in 2012 and 2013. He performed at a level that merited him an opportunity to play summer collegiate baseball with the Wilson Tobs in the Coastal Plain League.
He became attached to the Simmons family to the extent that the coach’s 3-year-old son refers to Cuthrell as “Uncle Collins.”
“Unreal,” Simmons described Cuthrell’s fifth collegiate season and only one with the Braves. “Nobody could have seen that coming. But put him in the middle of their lineup and that accentuates his skills. He’s a fifth-year senior with experience who can hit with power and for average.”
Wheeler, Cuthrell’s roommate for three years, was quick to congratulate his close friend following UNC Pembroke’s 12-4 victory against Barton on Wednesday.
“I am proud of him,” Wheeler expressed. “He put up good numbers [with Barton]. I am a little surprised, but not really. He always had the potential to do good things.
“He has changed his approach at the plate. He’s waiting for his pitch — and it’s working. I just wish he was still playing for us.”
Expectations are lofty for those on the outside looking in, but Cuthrell insists he does not go to the plate with hitting a home run in mind. With his 1-for-3 outing Wednesday, Cuthrell’s average dropped five points to .451, but he declares maintaining a norm well above .400 is not a priority.
“I just try to hit the ball to the middle of the field and put a good swing on the pitch,” he said. “I’m not worried about keeping up with my batting average. I just try to do what I can to get on base, score runs and help us win. Driving in runs is what I’m up there trying to do, and I just hope it continues. I like where I’m hitting (in the batting order).”
And, suddenly, hopes flicker that Cuthrell’s baseball career might continue beyond this spring. He acknowledges he has chatted with a couple of major league scouts.
“If [getting drafted] happens, that will be great,” Cuthrell remarked. “But, right now, I just think about playing one game at a time, and we’ve got eight more [in the regular season]. As far as goals the rest of the season, I just want to win and help extend the season as long as we can. I got lucky enough to get to play an extra year and I want to take full advantage of it.”
Of the fanfare, Cuthrell disdains mention of pressure and assures: “I’m enjoying it.”
And as Barton’s Simmons lamented: “I just wish he was doing it in [Barton] blue.”
This article was written by Tom Ham from The Wilson Daily Times, N.C. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.