Catawba’s Catch-32: McMillan excelling as career winds down
By Mike London
Kevin McMillan walked on as a Catawba freshman with zero fanfare and plenty of doubters.
The senior will walk away with a degree, championships and the satisfaction of knowing he made a difference at a successful Division II baseball program.
“I’ve always been behind somebody and I’ve never had anything handed to me,” McMillan said. “That’s been a good thing. It’s made me play with a chip on my shoulder, so to speak.”
As a high school senior, McMillan hit .418 with 11 doubles and 19 RBIs for a good North Rowan team.
Stellar numbers for a catcher. Lots of people patted him on the back. No one offered a scholarship.
The negatives on McMillan were his 5-foot-8 height and less than dazzling speed.
“I think Kevin is one of those guys that’s always been doubted, one of those guys that’s had to prove people wrong,” Catawba coach Jim Gantt said.
McMillan’s strengths weren’t obvious, but he had them. At the plate, he usually made contact. He got on base frequently. Behind the plate, he could block baseballs thrown in the dirt.
Gantt also coaches the Rowan County American Legion team. In the summer of 2005, McMillan worked his way up to being the cleanup hitter for Rowan. He batted .366.
“I remember asking Coach, ‘Do I have a chance to play at Catawba?’ ” McMillan said. “He told me there was a spot on the team if I wanted it. I signed some papers and all that, but there was no money.”
Nor any promises about playing time. As a freshman, McMillan joined a program backlogged with backstops. He probably was No. 6 on the depth chart.
Matt “Rock” Smith was the most valuable player in the SAC in 2006 and caught when he didn’t pitch. Casey Morris and Brian Sommer had experience. Freshmen Ryan Query, a Kannapolis native, and Jerry Sands had caught in high school and were elite recruits.
McMillan got into nine games his freshman season. He started once.
“I watched a lot and learned quite a bit from Matt Smith,” McMillan said. “Then the summer after my freshman year I played in a wood bat league in Alaska. I learned a lot (with the Mat-Su Miners) from guys who played at schools like UCLA and Notre Dame. It was also the first time I’d been away from home. I grew up a lot.”
Graduation, position switches and injuries cleared the catching logjam prior to McMillan’s sophomore season. He and Query, former American Legion rivals, were roommates. They lifted weights together and competed for a starting job.
Query had the quicker bat and wheels, but McMillan was his equal defensively.
“From the start, it was friendly competition between Ryan and me,” McMillan said. “He’s one of my best friends, and I think it was great that we came in together and spent four years together pushing each other. I made him better. I know he made me better.”
McMillan batted .345 with 11 RBIs as a sophomore while starting 16 games.
By his junior year he’d earned a partial scholarship. His batting average dropped in 2008, but his production rose. He knocked in 21 runs in 19 starts, highlighted by a monster day when Tusculum, Catawba’s toughest rival, visited Newman Park.
McMillan was catching, giving Query a chance to rest as the designated hitter.
McMillan did more than catch. He went 3-for-3 with two homers and a two-run double to ignite a 10-6 win.
“For that one day I was kinda beside myself,” McMillan said with a laugh. “But Coach Gantt tells us you can never outperform yourself. When you do something like that, it means you were capable of doing it ó and you could do it again.”
Catawba lost five offensive regulars after the 2008 season. That meant McMillan would be counted on not just as a contributor but as a key bat. He’s handled the increased responsibility and started every game of his senior season.
Query has proven a good enough athlete to handle left field, versatility that provided McMillan frequent chances to catch. When Query goes behind the plate, McMillan is the DH.
McMillan’s start to this season was only decent. Slowed by hamstring and shoulder injuries, he didn’t belt his first homer until Catawba’s 12th game, but he’s been consistent the last month.
After driving in five runs during Catawba’s 13-7 win against North Greenville on Monday, McMillan has seven homers, 40 RBIs and a .340 batting average. He’s reached base 44.2 percent of the time.
“It’s the first time I’ve played regularly, and I’ve loved it,” McMillan said. “You work so hard to get in there that, once you are in there and taste that starting position, you don’t ever want to let it go.”
He still does all the little things just as he did when he was a sub. He gets dirty in games, does a little extra work after practices.
Gantt said a SAC game Catawba won at Brevard over the weekend was a testament to McMillan’s mastery of little things.
“Trevor Mullins had his good curveball at Brevard,” Gantt said. “Kevin blocking those curveballs in the dirt, especially on some third strikes, was as big a reason as any why we won. He gave his pitcher confidence.”
McMillan has done well in school as a communications major. He’ll graduate on time. His father wanted a 3.0 GPA, and he’s maintained it, even though it’s meant packing textbooks on road trips.
Baseball has been McMillan’s life a long time, but that will change soon even if Catawba extends the season by qualifying for the Southeast Regional.
“These last few weeks I’ve been soaking up as much as I can,” McMillan said. “I know I’ll really miss baseball, and as much as I’m looking forward to graduating, it’s bittersweet.”
Seeing McMillan grab a diploma will also be bittersweet for Gantt, but he’ll never forget how McMillan went off against Tusculum.
Nor will he forget an at-bat McMillan had against Lincoln Memorial at Newman Park last month.
It was a seven-inning contest. Catawba trailed 12-9 in the sixth when McMillan came to the plate with the bases loaded. He stung an outside fastball over the right-field fence.
Grand slam. Catawba wins. Not bad for a guy that walked on.
“Kevin is my kind of player,” Gantt said. “A perfect example of hard work, determination and never accepting failure. Guys like Kevin ó it usually works out for them.”