“Keep your eye on the ball.”
Every baseball player, young and old, has heard that advice numerous times during their career.
It hadn’t been an issue for Matt Coutney, who has starred at every stop along his way to NCAA Division I Old Dominion University (ODU).
That is – until his bat seemingly went cold during night games.
On March 25th, Coutney went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts, then he was held hitless with three strikeouts the next week.
“Our hitting coach came up to me and said, ‘Hey Cout, you suck at hitting at night, like your night vision is horrible,’” the Wetaskiwin native told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast.
Not used to having struggles at the plate, Coutney chalked it up to one possible reason: a contact lens.
“I’ve been prescribed this contact for three or four years now, but I just never wore it during baseball because it kind of just messed with my eye because it was such a low prescription,” he said.
Figuring it was worth a try, Coutney put the contact in for a game against East Carolina University on April 6th and proceeded to collect four hits including a home run.
It kicked off a memorable month of baseball for the senior slugger, who set the Monarchs’ record for home runs in a single season, and remains near the top of the NCAA home run leaderboard.
MISSING A LOT
Coming off a year where he hit .282 with 10 home runs, 38 runs batted in and 46 runs scored, Coutney was being looked at as a veteran presence on an Old Dominion squad wanting to make a championship run.
Instead, he got off to a slow start, hitting just .194 through his first nine games.
“I just wasn’t seeing the ball well,” Coutney admitted. “Mechanically, I had some struggles going on there, and I was missing a lot of balls I should have hit.”
He started to pick things up by the second week of March, and was around .300 by the end of the month.
But those night games were giving him nightmares.
The contact lens has been game-changing for the St. Francis Xavier Academy product, who went on a tear in April with 14 home runs and 28 RBI while bumping his season average up to .364.
“Confidence is so key in sports, especially in baseball because it’s a humbling game,” Coutney said. “I have to pinch myself sometimes because one weekend will go by and you play really well, and you wonder if it’s just a fluke, then you just have to keep it rolling into the next.”
A RECORD IN SIGHT
Amid the excitement of finally getting his swing back, Coutney was quickly approaching the Monarchs’ record for home runs in a season.
Believe it or not, he says he wasn’t keeping track, but heading into a weekend tilt with Florida Atlantic University (FAU), he was just one off the mark of 20 that was set by Ron Taylor in 1997.
Coutney goes into every game with a game-plan drawn up by his coaches, on how to deal with each pitcher, keying in on sequences and tendencies.
“FAU has historically been a good club year-in and year-out, and they have some dudes on the mound,” Coutney said.
“You can’t just go up there and swing at every pitch – you have to slow the game down, breathe, and attack these pitchers with a plan.”
That plan worked to perfection early on April 24th, as Coutney sent a 1-0 offering from starter Tyler Burnham over the fence to tie the record.
Coutney, who hit .426 with 26 home runs and 116 runs batted during his two seasons with Colby Community College, still didn’t realize he was on the edge of history.
“I felt like I was just going to go out there and stick to my plan and approach,” he said. “If it goes out, it goes out.”
A BLAST TO HISTORY
After a strikeout in the third and a walk in the fifth, Coutney didn’t come up again until the eighth inning.
He wasted no time, sending the first pitch from reliever Robert Wegielnik over the wall in left field for his 21st long ball of the season.
The ODU record for home runs in a season was his.
“I didn’t even realize I broke the record until I was back in the dugout and one of our grounds crew guys came running in with the ball,” Coutney laughed. “I’m like, ‘What are you doing man, why are getting this ball?’”
Then it sunk in for the 6-foot-1, 230-pound infielder, who received the standard celebration from his dugout but nothing over the top.
“Apparently they were going to give me the silent treatment when I hit the home run,” he said. “They kind of folded on that at the last second.”
After the inning was over, Coutney and his teammates were running back onto the field for the top of the ninth inning when they heard the public-address announcer honour his accomplishment.
“You kind of have to pinch yourself and take a step back to realize it’s been 25 years since someone’s done that,” he said. “It last happened before I was born.”
FEELING THE LOVE
Adding to the occasion was that Coutney had a special guest in the stands for the game: his father, Frank.
It’s not every day that he gets to have a family member make the 4,000-plus kilometre trek to Norfolk, Virginia to see him play, so he relished in the opportunity.
“It’s always special when you can have some family come down and watch,” Coutney said. “It’s nice to have someone from back home there to support you and make history, you could say.”
After the game, the elder Coutney confided in his son about his plans to document the final at-bat.
“He said he was trying to get his camera out in that last at-bat to videotape it, but I got up there and swung at the first pitch and hit it over the wall,” the first baseman smiled. “So he didn’t get a chance to take a little video or anything like that.”
The Edmonton Prospects alum’s phone was also getting a workout following the record-breaking game, as family, friends and old teammates sent messages of support.
“Every time you play a game and you see somebody here or somebody there reach out to you, it means a lot,” Coutney said. “It kind of grounds you that there are people out there taking note of what you’re doing.”
EYES WIDE OPEN
It’s not just those close to Coutney taking notice, either.
He is garnering a lot of attention from professional scouts with the June MLB Draft coming soon.
“Guys are giving me a hard time about that stuff,” he stated. “It’s always been a childhood dream of mine to go out there and prove to myself that I could one day play professional baseball.”
He’s also not losing sight of the opportunity to learn at a top-tier school, as he’s double-majoring in business management and leadership.
“Education means the world to me,” Coutney said. “Once you get your degree, no one can take it away from you.”
If his baseball journey does come to an end soon, he would like to follow in his father’s footsteps and work in local government back home.
For now, Coutney is focused on helping his team win as many games as possible to extend their season, as the senior is also nearing the end of his collegiate career.
He also wouldn’t mind padding his home run stats in the process, as he has a friendly competition going with teammate Andy Garriola, who is four dingers back of Coutney for the team lead.
Speaking like a grizzled veteran, Coutney is able to reflect on the journey he’s had and what lies ahead.
“The older I get, I appreciate the game more and more,” he said. “You just have to take a moment, take a step back, and realize that you’re playing a game, so let’s go out there, have fun and compete.”
It’s clear to see, even to Coutney, that he’s enjoying his time on the field.