Big Year in the Big Ten

By IAN WILSON

From the bump to the batter’s box, Matt Lloyd is poised for a big year with the Indiana Hoosiers.

The Okotoks Dawgs Academy graduate will serve as Indiana’s closer again this season and he’s a constant threat when he trades in his glove for a bat.

A preseason poll of Big Ten Conference baseball coaches selected the Hoosiers as the favourites to win the conference championship, and other polls have the Division 1 powerhouse ranked among the country’s top 25 college teams, with Perfect Game USA slotting them at No. 17 and D1Baseball.com placing them at No. 23.

If Indiana is to live up to those expectations, Lloyd will play a major role in the team’s success. And despite the preseason buzz, the 21-year-old is quick to point out the Hoosiers will have to earn their ranking on the field.

“I think it’s pretty cool to get preseason recognition and be ranked, but at the same time it doesn’t really mean anything,” Lloyd told Alberta Dugout Stories.

“We still need to show up and take care of our business every single day. That would be the case if we were ranked No. 1 or No. 150. It all comes down to taking each game one pitch at a time, one day at a time.”

RAVE REVIEWS

The projections for Lloyd himself are also glowing. After posting a 2.23 ERA and collecting nine saves for the Hoosiers last season, the right-hander is one of 60 players named to this year’s Stopper of the Year Watch list.

The junior also sits at No. 5 on D1Baseball.com’s power rankings for second basemen. Lloyd will see frequent time at second base, but with his important role out of the bullpen and the need to keep his throwing arm fresh all season, he’ll also take turns at first base and as designated hitter.

“I have been focused mostly on my defense at second base and first base, as I didn’t play a position last year. This is an area I have needed to improve the most,” said Lloyd, who hit .301 with 11 home runs and 46 RBI over 58 games for the Hoosiers in 2017.

Whether he’s on the mound, patrolling the right side of the infield or taking hacks at the plate, Lloyd said he’s comfortable wherever he plays.

“I honestly don’t have a preference. I love being in the box hitting, but I also love being on the mound. The only thing that does make a difference is the ability to play and hit every day,” said Lloyd, who is majoring in liberal studies and also has an interest in sport management.

DAWG DAYS OF SUMMER

The Foothills Composite High School grad is coming off a dream season with the Okotoks Dawgs, which saw him ride a 24-game hit streak to a .402 batting average. He also hit eight home runs, belted 38 RBI and scored 49 runs over 39 games. As a result, he was named the Western Major Baseball League’s Canadian Rookie of the Year.

“I had an amazing summer. I made some great friends, was able to stay at my own house, learn from a great coaching staff and play in front of an amazing crowd,” said Lloyd of the Dawgs’ average attendance of 4,100 per game in Okotoks, good for third in North America in summer collegiate rankings.

“I finally got my chance to play on the team I looked up to throughout my J-Dawg days … it was amazing to come home and play the whole summer – literally the best summer of my life so far.”

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Matt Lloyd on the Seaman Stadium scoreboard in 2017 … photo by Ian Wilson

His parents, Steve and Leslie, were also happy to have him home for the summer.

“I really liked being able to pop over to Seaman Stadium to watch him play and chat down on the field after the game. I was absolutely floored this summer at the size of the crowds,” said Leslie, adding Matt loved getting his Tim Horton’s fix when he was back in Alberta.

“At the end of the season, the head coach and assistant coach both shook my hand and mentioned what a joy it was to have Matt on the team, both from a baseball perspective and for the person that he is, his character, so that was fantastic information to hear.”

Matt’s father said the summer went by quickly and he didn’t see his son as often as he would’ve liked, but he really enjoyed seeing the infielder interact with his teammates.

“It was awesome to see him and also to spend time with a lot of the other guys, as well,” said Steve, who teaches online English with Foothills School Division.

PARENTAL GUIDANCE

Matt’s athleticism doesn’t surprise his parents anymore. His sporting abilities have been evident for several years now. Matt was playing catch with stuffed animals and soft sport balls before he was two years old and he began swinging a toy bat by three years old.

The Lloyds lived in Antigonish, Nova Scotia at that point and the family tried to remain active with indoor and outdoor sports.

“I remember playing catch in the back yard, as well as pitching and hitting with a big orange plastic baseball bat,” recalled Leslie, who is a chartered accountant with the Calgary Board of Education.

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10-year-old Matt Lloyd

Matt and older sister Rebecca spent time skating and tobogganing in the winter and they would hike, bike, swim and play baseball in the summer.

“Matt was always pretty good at whatever he was doing, as was his sister,” said Steve, adding Rebecca played a big role in her brother’s early athletic development.

When the Lloyds weren’t playing sports, baseball was often on TV at home.

“Both Leslie and I are huge baseball fans, so games were always on at our house,” Steve recalled.

“I imagine the fact that we love the games and all four of us played together and watched together was a big factor … Matt is particularly close with his mom and she loves baseball, so it was easy and natural for Matt to begin to love an activity that his mom loved and did with him. So much of the early credit goes to her.”

Matt remembers frequent trips to the ball diamond with his father and the support of his mother in fostering his love of the game.

“My mom would come to every single game of mine and score keep. She fueled my love for the game by playing catch with me in the backyard at a very young age, pretty much whenever I asked her to. Both of my parents played huge roles in introducing me to the game, and encouraging me every step of the way,” said the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Hoosier hurler.

ALBERTA BOUND

In 2002, the Lloyds moved to Calgary and Matt’s love of sport continued to evolve. He took up basketball, football, hockey, running and skiing.

Part of their active lifestyle was for the kids’ benefit, but Leslie said she also had her own exercise goals in mind.

“Selfishly, this really was an exercise component … a way and a means for me to get some exercise. And to be there and involved to oversee my kids, to make sure they were safe and supervised, it was a perfect mix and a perfect match,” she said.

As his years in Little League accumulated, it became clear that Matt’s interest in baseball was more than just a passing fad.

“Once he started playing organized baseball and I was able to see his naturalness in the game … it was early on that I started to think that Matt could play collegiate baseball, and we started to work toward that,” said Steve, who founded the Coyote Baseball program and the Coyote Den in Calgary.

“At about 10 or 11 he told me that he wanted to play Major League Baseball, so we started to talk about how to get to the level that could make playing pro ball a possibility.”

A few years later, the Lloyds moved from Calgary to Okotoks, in part so Matt could pursue his baseball dream and attend the Dawgs Baseball Academy.

“My dad understood that I needed to work on my craft every day in order to be the best player I could. This was something I did not understand. I just loved hitting and throwing the ball around,” recalled Matt, who played in the Cal Ripken World Series in 2008 as a 12-year-old.

TOP DAWG

The Dawgs Academy exposed Matt to “elite coaching” from Allen Cox (and others) and it accelerated his development.

“It was around then that I really began to believe that Matt would not only have a chance to go play collegiate baseball somewhere, I realized that he could have an opportunity to go to a really good school of his choice and to have an opportunity to play baseball for a living,” said Steve.

“His dream had become an achievable goal in my eyes.”

The individual achievements also started to pile up for Matt. He was named Baseball Alberta’s Bantam High Performance Player of the Year in 2011 and he earned a spot on Baseball Canada’s Junior National Team in 2013.

“The Dawgs Academy was a tremendous experience for Matt … it was and is a huge part of the mix that has built Matt to this point, and it has been perhaps a cornerstone to the foundation of his career,” Steve told Alberta Dugout Stories.

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Matt Lloyd with the Junior Dawgs at age 14 … photo courtesy Lloyd family

It also prepared him for junior college (JUCO) baseball. Matt committed to Iowa Western Community College but Tommy John surgery prevented him from playing in 2015. He did, however, bounce back in 2016. As a redshirt freshman, he went 7-0 with a 2.78 ERA while striking out 58 batters in 55 innings. At the plate, he hit nine home runs, drove in 59 runners, scored 60 runs and posted a batting average of .371.

He built on that JUCO success last year in Indiana – where he finished in the top 10 in doubles, slugging, home runs, RBI and saves in the Big Ten Conference – and in Okotoks, where he held the WMBL’s best batting average, placed second in runs, finished tied for sixth in home runs and was tied for eighth in RBI.

PROUD PARENTS 

Needless to say, Matt’s parents are among those who are impressed. But their pride has little to do with his place on the leaderboards.

“I am so pleased that Matt loves the game and knows it is bigger than him, and that he is not entitled to anything,” said Steve, who has heard from several coaches about Matt’s baseball smarts and how respected he is by his teammates.

“I am proud that Matt will put his team first in any game situation, and that he lives out a set of values that honours God and his family and his teams … the genuine love that he shares with his teams and friends is wonderful for a father to experience.”

He added: “As amazed and impressed by all the things he has done, I am most proud by the person that he is.”

Leslie also admires her son’s tenacity and his mental toughness.

“I like that he works hard – it is a grind – and he knows he still has lots and lots of work ahead of him,” she said.

“I am amazed at his demeanor, really.  He exhibits much grace and mercy and humility and forgiveness and the love of God.”

HOOSIER STATE OF MIND

As Lloyd prepares for a big season – which starts today in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina with a matchup against Oklahoma, followed by weekend games against Kansas State and South Alabama – its clear the two-way star player has plenty of support in Alberta and Indiana.

He also faces a lot of pressure with team and individual expectations, including the prospect of being selected in the MLB draft in June.

So, what are his goals for this season?

“My first priority for 2018 is to win a championship. I want to play in a regional again this year, then a super-regional and ultimately go to Omaha to compete for the national championship. My personal goals for 2018 are to play to my full ability and earn my spot in the lineup,” said Lloyd matter-of-factly.

“It comes down to taking it day by day, taking it pitch by pitch, and one game at a time. Then the draft will take care of itself, and I will handle that as it comes.”

He is well aware of the expectations, both for himself and the Hoosiers, and it’s something he and his father discussed heading into this year.

“He is too smart at this point to be looking at trying to attain particular numbers, but he does know that focusing on refining his process, work ethic and approach is manageable. So that continues to be his goal – get better, be a good teammate, help the team win,” said Steve, who also has extensive experience coaching basketball.

“He is aware that the draft is there at the end of the season, but he sees it as a byproduct of doing his work, rather than a goal of his season.”

As his son Matt said of expectations, they don’t really mean anything until he and his teammates show up and take care of business on the field.

That starts now.

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Matt Lloyd runs the bases for the Hoosiers … this photo & main picture courtesy IU Athletics
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