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April 5, 2007

Road Trip: Changing a Culture

HOOVER, Ala -- Brian Shoop is trying to do more than coach baseball. He is trying to change a culture - a culture of losing. While Shoop is not the only coach who has ever taken over a program without a winning tradition, he is a coach with a proven track record of winning. That helps. There are no credibility issues with the first-year UAB coach.

692 wins in seventeen seasons at Birmingham Southern with nine forty wins seasons and the 2001 NAIA championship earns instant credibility. As does an at large D-I Regional berth in 2004 - the first year Birmingham Southern was eligible.

He understands winning.

However, as Shoop moved over to UAB for this season, he found a team that went just 19-38 last season and won just six games in Conference USA.

Wednesday evening in Hoover in newly renovated Regions Park, his Blazer club stood with Alabama toe-to-toe with the Crimson Tide escaping with a 2-1 victory. Seven walks and a timely error led to Alabama's two runs - both scoring in different innings without a hit.

"We have a long way to go," Shoop explained. "When you just give up two runs, you could say it was a nice effort by a pitching staff in general. We walked seven again today. That has been a real struggle. If you give enough free opportunities, eventually something is going to happen. You hope we could score enough to win. We did better than last time. It was 16-0 the last time we played."

UAB did get hammered in their first meeting with Alabama. This game was different. They entered the contest on a three game winning streak after sweeping conference foe Central Florida over the weekend.

A first inning triple and a wild pitch handed UAB an early lead but they would get no more offensive production off Alabama starter Casey Kebodeaux.

Kebodeaux (3-2) shook off the rough first inning to give Alabama a quality eight-inning 94-pitch start - a stark contrast from his last two starts when he allowed eleven earned runs in just two innings. Kebodeaux went eight innings and allowed just five hits, one earned run, struck out five and did not walk a batter.

"It means a lot to earn the respect back from my teammates and coaches," Kebodeaux said. "And get my confidence back. No walks was the key thing. My breaking ball has been a little loopy the past two weeks so they were sitting on my fastball. That is what they've been getting the hits on. Tonight my breaking ball was sharp like I wanted to throw it and I was getting a lot of ground balls. The guys behind me made the plays."

"The story of the game tonight was Casey Kebodeaux," Alabama coach Jim Wells said. "He pitched very well. That was really it tonight. There really wasn't much else to the game."

Tommy Hunter picked up his fourth save working a perfect ninth with two strikeouts.

Alabama (19-12) got the eventual game-winner in the eighth as Ryan Rhoden was hit by a pitch and took second on a sacrifice. After an error moved him to third, Hoover native Greg Paiml drove him in with a safety squeeze.

Blazer starter Kyle Roberson struggled with control in the second hitting one and walking three to give Alabama a run. Coming in, Roberson has now walked 15 batters in 15 innings.

UAB (15-16) used eight pitchers in the game. Roberson pitched two innings and was followed by Grant Addison, Casey Kroft, Jimbo Crew, Brandon Flaherty, Brandon Wallace, James Oliver (1-2), and Bryan Keedy.

The Blazers are not ready to line up with the top teams on their schedule and whip them each time out. At this point, that is not the expectation. To get to that point will take some maturation within the program.

"There is a lot of growing pains and there will continue to be in every area," Shoop said. "Physically it is like having 34 freshmen. That is not a knock on the kids. I love the kids. They are great. Not that the game is different but everybody's tweak on it is a little different. Usually you have eight new guys and really we have all the guys new.

"We have some areas where we have really struggled. Although we only made one error tonight, we have really struggled defensively. We have given up a lot of free opportunities."

As for Shoop, he tries to keep his team's confidence high despite dropping back under .500 overall with the loss.

"It is an uphill climb mentally," Shoop said. "It is such a lengthy time of losing - prolonged losing. We have let a lot of games get away. We let a seven run lead and four run lead get away last week. Usually without the benefit of hits. We have been working on that. It is not an easy fix. We are improving but we have a long way to go."

So how does one change a culture of losing?

"It is tough," Shoop explained. "Nothing beats winning. We brought a professional confidence trainer in. We talked about it all fall. We were up two going into the bottom of the ninth at Samford last week. I gathered the team before the came onto the field. I told them, 'this is the night. Someone is going to make a play for us.' We go out and walk the first batter, make an error, hit the next guy, then walk a guy."

At this point Shoop can't help but laugh.

"So we try to encourage. We try to be very positive. I don't think there is not a magic answer and if there is I don't know it."

If the answer is there, Shoop will find it.


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