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updated: 5/8/2014 11:19 PM

Smith leads growing program at Concordia

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  • Kurt Kempema delivers for Concordia in a recent game against Lakeland.

      Kurt Kempema delivers for Concordia in a recent game against Lakeland.
    Submitted photo

  • Adam Smith

      Adam Smith

  • Colin Bethan

      Colin Bethan

  • Carlos Olavarria

      Carlos Olavarria

 

Concordia University baseball coach Adam Smith may have a nice head start on his first recruit from the Class of 2032.

Smith and his wife Kelly became proud parents for the third time last Friday as their son Mac joined daughters Elle and Sydney.

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"He'd better hit the ball with that kind of name," Smith, the former Schaumburg High baseball and basketball standout, said with a laugh earlier this week. "And hopefully he throws better than his dad."

Mac will be in good shape if he hits, throws and plays the game the same way as his dad's team. Concordia is ranked fourth in the nation in Division III by D3baseball.com and improved to 35-5 with a pair of wins Thursday in the first day of the Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference tournament in Mequon, Wis.

Smith, who had a successful stint as a player and assistant coach at Carthage, is now 142-37 in his four years as the head coach at Concordia. And the program from River Forest has been fueled by narrowly missing a berth to last year's D-III College World Series.

"We've been thinking about it all year, and it's a constant reminder of how hard we have to work," said sophomore outfielder and Schaumburg product Colin Bethran of Concordia's slogan of "Two Innings Away."

"This was probably the toughest off-season we've ever had," said junior pitcher Kurt Kempema, a Daily Herald All-Area pick from Schaumburg. "In all of my years here it's always been tough, but we have so much drive and determination to get back to where we were."

The 6-foot-4, 212-pound Kempema is 6-0 for the second straight year with an ERA just above 3.00. He allowed only 3 hits and an unearned run with 11 strikeouts and 2 walks in 8 1-3 innings Thursday night as top-seeded Concordia slipped past Edgewood 2-1 in 10 innings.

"Kurt has just been fantastic," said Smith, who considers Kempema and Niles West product Dan Kluss as his 1A and 1B starters. "I can't say enough about what he's done."

Junior shortstop Carlos Olavarria, an all-area pick at Leyden, had the game-winning sacrifice fly against Edgewood and All-American closer Steve Cox (Willowbrook) got the final five outs to continue his streak of two seasons without allowing an earned run. Olavarria transferred from Aurora University and is hitting a team-high .406 with 41 RBI, 19 doubles and 20 stolen bases.

Bethran has been one of the biggest surprises for the Cougars after hitting just .105 in 19 at-bats as a freshman. Bethran, who added 20 pounds of muscle from his offseason work with new pitching and strength and conditioning coach Mike Stawski, is hitting .350 with 16 RBI and 17 steals.

"He was so raw last year, but he's progressed in a great way," said Smith, whose teams have annually been among the best in hitting in Division III. "He worked his tail off and he's going to be one of the best players in the conference the next two years."

Bethran is glad he decided to continue playing. He was originally going to attend Full Sail University in Orlando, Fla., to study music production, but he had a strong finish to his senior season in Schaumburg's run to the Class 4A supersectional for retiring head coach Paul Groot.

Bethran kept playing well that summer for Elk Grove's American Legion team and coaches Brian Mucha and Mike Manno, who are friends with Smith, helped get him to Concordia.

"I couldn't abandon baseball," Bethran said. "I wasn't done playing. It was definitely one of the best decisions I've ever made."

Bethran's baserunning has also fit with a change in philosophy by Smith to run more this year. Concordia has doubled its total of stolen bases from last year to 120 to augment a .335 team average.

Even if the Cougars didn't win the conference tourney this weekend, they would most likely get an at-large berth to the Division III tournament. A big confidence booster was an early-season 3-2 comeback victory over top-ranked Webster (Mo.) University, which eliminated the Cougars from last year's postseason.

Wisconsin-Whitewater, which is getting strong seasons from Mid-Suburban League products Trey Cannon (Palatine) in the outfield and Scott Plaza (Prospect) on the mound, is ranked second. Defending D-III champion Linfield (Ore.) University, which is coached by former major leaguer Scott Brosius, is ranked third.

Bethran and Kempema believe Concordia can play and beat anyone in D-III.

"The sky is the limit for us," Bethran said.

"I feel if we play to our top level we can really go a long way," Kempema said. "We can be one of the best teams out there. It all depends on what team shows up and how we're going to play."

• Marty Maciaszek is a freelance sports columnist for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at marty.maciaszek@gmail.com.

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