May 21, 2009

By Amy Farnum Novin

Mesa State senior shortstop Matt Bodenchuk went from thinking his baseball career had ended two years ago to returning to the field this season to leading his team to their first-ever NCAA Division II Championship appearance.

Following an All-American season in 2007, Bodenchuk went to Maryland to play summer ball in the Cal Ripken Senior League for the second straight year.  Before he left for the summer, Mesa State head coach Chris Hanks ask him to train his arm to become the team’s fourth starter in addition to his regular shortstop duties, and he agreed.

“My arm had always been one of my stronger points of my game,” said Bodenchuk.  “At the end of that season, I had a meeting with Coach Hanks and he said wanted me to work on a little pitching and get my arm really strong.  He wanted to play me at shortstop in the first three games of the series, and then start me as a pitcher in the fourth game.  I went out to Maryland with the mindset of getting my arm in the best shape possible.”

Bodenchuk was playing shortstop six nights a week, so his pitching time was limited, but he felt his arm was getting stronger.

“There were about three weeks left in the summer season, and I felt a little twinge in my elbow, but I’ve had arm pains before and it wasn’t anything I was too worried about,” said Bodenchuk.  “I was out long-tossing again a couple days later, and that little twinge was still there.  On this one throw, I felt a little pop and the ball tailed to the right 30 or 40 yards.  I just had a dead-arm feeling from my wrist to my elbow.”

For the rest of the summer, Bodenchuk served as the team’s designated hitter, and did not throw at all.  Upon returning to Colorado, he immediately went to the doctor and got an MRI.  The doctor called him with the results, and was pretty certain his ulna collateral ligament in his elbow was torn. 

“He said, ‘Your baseball days are done for awhile’, and that’s when it really sunk in,” said Bodenchuk.  “I kind of broke down.  I knew at that point I wasn’t going to be able to throw, or I needed to get “Tommy John” surgery, which is an 8-12 month rehabilitation process.”

Bodenchuk sought another opinion at the Steadman Hawkins Clinic, where he saw Dr. Randy Viola, who regularly sees elite athletes like players on the Colorado Rockies and competitors on the U.S. Ski Team.  It was the week before school started, and Bodenchuk was anxious to have his surgery before the semester began.  Viola, however, was going to travel to New Zealand two days later with the U.S. Ski Team, so he agreed to do the surgery the next afternoon.

“It all happened really, really quickly,” said Bodenchuk.  “I feel so blessed and lucky about the whole surgery situation.  The things that went down for me to even have him do the surgery, and the way the surgery actually went was pretty amazing.”

The native of Boulder, Colo., spent the 2007-08 academic year rehabilitating his arm, and learning the mental side of the game.

“It was a tough year,” said Bodenchuk.  “I had always focused on my physical skills, but having to sit out and watch someone else play my position was tough.  The team struggled a little bit, and there was nothing I could do.  You get a really different perspective sitting out and doing some coaching.  Like my coach said, he thinks every ballplayer would be better if they sat out a full year and did some coaching and saw it from a different angle.  He nailed it – it was absolutely true.”

Bodenchuk returned for fall ball this year, and was not only back to form on the field, but also was prepared to push the Mavericks in different aspects of the game.

“I felt like a real leader when I came back this year,” said Bodenchuk.  “A lot of guys joked with me because I was the old guy on the team.  I feel like I’ve helped a lot of guys with the mental side of the game.”

Mesa State has compiled a 43-13 record, and has advanced to the Division II World Series for the first time in school history.  Bodenchuk is batting .441 with 16 home runs and 90 RBI this season, and earned 2009 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Player of the Year honors, but he is enjoying the team’s success even more.

“I’ve focused a lot more on enjoying every game more than my stats or getting drafted,” said Bodenchuk.  “I didn’t place a lot of emphasis on that, but living in the moment and having fun every day.”

The Mavericks will face Belmont Abbey College in the opening round of the Division II Championship on May 23 at the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary, N.C.

“Our team is an incredible bunch of guys,” said Bodenchuk.  “We’ve had a great year.  We really clicked from the first day.  This is kind of a freakish year, because there were a lot of redshirts.  A lot of things had to happen for this to fall into place.  We’re a very senior-loaded team, and a lot of us came back with something to prove.”

The eight-team, double-elimination tournament begins May 23, and culminates with the national championship game on May 30.