With a forecasted high of 74 degrees with mostly sunny skies, Friday will be a perfect day for some baseball in Los Angeles. That’s where our Utah Baseball team will be to take on Loyola Marymount in their first game of the 2022 season. For the first time since 2005, Utah will be starting the season with a new head coach. Gary Henderson has taken the reins as the new head coach of the University of Utah. He brings with him a wealth of knowledge from a life spent coaching baseball at the highest of collegiate levels.
Coach Henderson has 33 years of collegiate coaching experience, 11 as a head coach. His resume is littered with awards and accolades such as National Assistant Coach of the Year in 1996, SEC Coach of the Year in 2012, and in 2018 he won both the NCBWA Coach of the Year and Perfect Game/Rawlings Coach of the Year. During his time as the head coach at the University of Kentucky, the team won 30 or more games for 5 seasons straight. In 2018, Coach Henderson led the Mississippi State Bulldogs to a College World Series appearance.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Coach Henderson about the team and the upcoming season. After our conversation, I have to say that Utah Baseball is in good hands and the future looks bright.
Utah Baseball wants to return to the summit they reached in 2016 when they won the Pac-12 Championship and made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Gary Henderson is an ideal coach to lead them there, but he will tell you that it’s all about having the right people around him, “If you’re gonna do this thing, you’ve gotta have top-level support staff. You can’t do it by yourself, anybody who thinks they can is young and has never had the job”. Henderson made it clear that he has built a team of “people with high character who think they are winners and act accordingly”.
Coach Henderson detailed all the people who work together to build this program. It includes players, assistant coaches, strength coaches, academic advisors, and members of the athletic department. One key piece of Coach Henderson’s staff is Assistant Coach Todd Guilliams. Henderson praises Guilliams as, “one of the best offensive minds in college baseball”. In fact, Guilliams knows hitting and offense so well that he literally wrote the book on it. His book is titled High-Scoring Baseball: The Complete Guide to Run Production. Guilliams spent the past 5 years with the Kentucky Wildcats. Guilliams’ track record indicates that he has earned that praise. Since joining the Kentucky coaching staff in 2017, 13 Wildcat hitters have been drafted. In every step of his career, Guilliams has developed hitters and built powerhouse lineups from top to bottom.
Utah returns a host of great players for the 2022 season, headlined by redshirt senior shortstop Matt Richardson. In 2021, Richardson had a .360/.451/.489 slash line. His .360 batting average was the 5th best mark in the Pac-12. Richardson all did this while providing solid defense from the shortstop position. It’s incredibly valuable to the team to have someone like Richardson who can anchor the infield at a premium position while providing All-Conference level offensive production.
Another key returning piece of the lineup is sophomore outfielder Kai Roberts. Roberts had a standout freshman year in which he hit .291/.373/.418. Out of the returning players, Roberts led the team in plate appearances, games played, hits, doubles, triples, walks, and stolen bases. The one sore spot on his stat sheet is a 32.7% strikeout rate. Coach Henderson spoke highly of Roberts’ work ethic and said “A point of focus for Kai would be to cut that strikeout number in half... we’re working really hard to get him to be a little bit more efficient and a little bit more productive offensively”. Roberts is coming back from a “relatively minor” elbow surgery over the offseason but Coach confirmed that he is healthy and ready to go.
A newcomer to the team this season is graduate transfer Chase Anderson. Anderson played shortstop at Division III Pacific University from 2018-2021. Anderson had a monster 2021 in which he hit .414 with 13 doubles, 6 triples, 9 home runs, and 39 RBI. He also walked 38 times with only 26 strikeouts. Anderson earned Division III All-Region First Team and All-Region Player of the Year from multiple outlets. Since Utah already has a strong shortstop in Matt Richardson, Anderson will man second base for the Utes.
Coach Henderson credited Utah RHP Matt Sox with paving the way for Chase Anderson in making the transition from Division III baseball, “Matt came to us as an engineering student from Whitman in Walla Walla. That kind of opened the door, I think, for Chase and how he viewed himself. The fact that if Matt can come here and be really productive and successful, that Chase thought that might be a good fit for him too”.
Coach Henderson mentioned how both players’ character stood to him during their respective recruitments, “I had really, really good evaluations on both of those kids. Then you talk to them on the phone and you realize what you’re getting in terms of the quality of their character and types of personalities and work ethic. There are a lot of fans for both of those kids where they came from”.
Matt Sox served exclusively as a relief pitcher in 2021. He posted a 10.04 K/9 which would have been good for 6th best in the conference. He also recorded the lowest batting average allowed of all returning pitchers on the team. At the close of last season, Sox and Coach Henderson talked about him being a starter this year, “it was really simple for me and Matt. It was ‘if you come back with a changeup that we can use, you’re gonna get to start... he had a really good summer in San Luis Obispo, pitched really well, and acquired a changeup. I’m really proud of the effort he put in and he’ll be a starting pitcher for us”.
Another starter for the team this season will be redshirt sophomore RHP Randon Hostert. Hostert was drafted out of high school by the Texas Rangers in the 15th round of the 2019 MLB Draft but opted instead to attend college. Coach Henderson raved about the mental side of Hostert’s game, “He’s an interesting kid. He’s got character, integrity, work ethic, and intelligence off the chart for a college athlete. He’s elite in those areas”.
This season, Hostert will be two years removed from Tommy John surgery. Coach Henderson thinks that he will hit his stride this year, “he’s a guy that has really benefitted from a second year of work, rehabilitation, strength gain, and getting back to where his skills were prior to his surgery... I think he will continue to get better and better as the season goes”.
Another player to keep an eye on is RHP Cam Day. Day is a freshman out of Layton HS, who will be the third starter. Coach Henderson believes he has a good chance to make an impact as a freshman, “He’ll pitch on Sundays and he’s gonna do well. He’ll be a typical freshman... There will be some peaks, some valleys, and some plateaus”. Day was the number 1 overall recruit in the state of Utah and #289 nationally in 2021. In his senior season of high school, Day has an 11-1 record with a 0.40 ERA, 133 strikeouts, and only 9 walks over 76.1 IP. That works out to an absolutely ridiculous 15.7 K/9.
Coach Henderson is tasked with rekindling a winning culture with the eventual goal of getting back to a Pac-12 Championship. So far, he has done a good job of bringing fresh talent into the program in the form of both coaches and players, who can augment the talent that was already present on the roster. The next step is to play some baseball and see how the team competes and develops over the course of the season. It all starts Friday, at 7pm MT in Los Angeles when the Utes will try to get the season started with a win.
After the 3-game series against Loyola Marymount, Utah will take on UVU down in Orem on Tuesday, Feb 22. Utah’s first home series will be March 11-13 when they open up Pac-12 play against the University of Washington.