Editor's note: this is the seventh of a 10-part Kentucky baseball preseason feature, leading up to UK's preseason media day on Feb. 4. Ranked as high as No. 8 in the preseason, Kentucky will open up its 2013 season in Spartanburg, S.C., vs. UNC-Asheville on Feb. 15. Part one (Trevor Gott), part two (Walter Wijas), part three (Matt Reida), part four (Jerad Grundy), part five (Zac Zellers), part six (A.J. Reed).It is a hard - nearly impossible - thing to step into the Southeastern Conference and contribute as a freshman.
When Austin Cousino opened up his collegiate career as the leadoff hitter and centerfielder at Wofford in the season opener, the Kentucky coaching staff had high expectations for the native of Dublin, Ohio.
After all, Cousino entered his freshman season after earning first-team High School All-America honors by Baseball America at Dublin Coffman and as the MVP of the 2009 IABF World Championship with the 16-U USA National Team.
Cousino served notice that he was not a usual freshman, opening his career with a 14-game hitting streak that included 10 extra-base hits, with five coming in his first four NCAA games. That was all a prelude to a historic season that culminated with consensus freshman All-America honors and becoming the first UK player to ever earn SEC Freshman of the Year accolades.
"He had a tremendous impact," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "He brings a lot of confidence. He brings a lot of production. He is a guy that had a lot of success before he got to us and he had a tremendous freshman year. He maintained that leadoff spot in the lineup for the entire year and for a freshman in our league that is really tough to do."
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound left-handed hitter led UK in nearly every category as the leadoff man and centerfielder for 62 of UK's 63 games. He posted team highs in average (.319), at-bats (260), runs (61), hits (83), doubles (20), triples (two) and steals (15).
Defensively, Cousino dazzled with his range and instincts, leading UK and ranking second in the league with eight outfield assists and shattering the UK record for an outfielder with 142 putouts.
"Our defense really carried us a long ways last year," Cousino said. "This year it will be even better if not tops in the conference. With (Zac) Zellers and Lucas (Witt) out there it gives you three centerfielder types and it gives confidence to the pitchers. And with Riddle and Reida up the middle brings back that strong of a defense it just gives those pitchers confidence to know that even if someone squares them up and hits it hard, they have eight other guys back there that are going to do the job."
UK's defensive unit was paced in 2012 by Cousino and the up-the-middle combination of Matt Reida and J.T. Riddle. The Wildcats shattered nearly every fielding school record, including setting a new program standard with a .976 fielding percentage.
"That helps a lot because when it comes to those 3-2, 4-3, 2-1 kind of games on Friday night in the SEC, it is defense that is going to win the games," Cousino said. "No matter how much pop you have in the lineup, or big-name guys, it really comes down to who can pitch and who can field the ball the best. That is great for our pitchers to step on the mound and have that kind of confidence in the guys behind them."
Cousino's freshman season had historic implications, as he set new freshman school records for hits and runs scored. Overall, he ranked 12th in UK single-season history in hits, 11th in doubles, second in at bats, sixth in starts, and ninth in hit by pitches (13).
"'Cousi' is a special player," UK starting pitcher Corey Littrell said. "He is a guy that you want to have around and have on your team. He is gifted but he also has that swagger. He knows he is good. But it isn't ever the type of confidence that gets on anyone's nerves, he is the type of guy that everyone loves and wants to be around. He is a great leader for us at the top of the lineup with his bat and his speed. In 2012, a lot of people didn't realize how good 'Cousi' was and now having a year under his belt he is going to be ever better."
Following the year, Cousino became just the third UK player to ever earn a spot on the USA Collegiate National Team, joining the 22-man roster managed by Tennessee head coach Dave Serrano. Cousino led the star-laden team in hitting with a .351 mark, pacing the club to a bronze medal in Honkbal Week in the Netherlands.
"It helped me a lot personally to play against the great players from other programs," Cousino said of his Team USA experience. "You face a lot of great pitching in the SEC and when you go play summer ball, whether with Team USA or somewhere else, you are playing against other great players from conferences around the country. It was neat to see how you measured up and meet new players and coaches."
He starred during a trip to Cuba, including a 3-for-4 game in an extra-inning thriller against the host nation.
"Cuba was really fun, not just playing but experiencing the different culture of being outside of Lexington or outside my hometown or the country," Cousino said. "It was really cool to see how much the fans and the people there just love the sport of baseball. It was really eye-opening to playing against some of the best baseball players in the world. The history of Cuba baseball was just really cool."
Not a bad calendar year for an 18-year old freshman playing in the nation's best conference.
As he enters his sophomore year, Cousino is a preseason All-America honoree with the ability to once again spark a prolific UK offensive attack at the top of the lineup and dazzle with his skills in centerfield.
"There is a lot of stuff that we left out on the table: a regional, hosting a regional, winning a regional, winning our conference," Cousino said. "We were ranked highly most of the season but we need to bring that into this year. We now know what to expect. With this staff, the returners and the new players, we know what this season entails, through the SEC, into the SEC Tournament and into the NCAA Tournament. We can use that knowledge as a standard of where we stand. Last year was the first year that every single one of us had been to a regional so it was a nice bar for where we stand. This year we can take it that much further."