The Gophers played the first 35 seasons with John Anderson as head coach without a single starting player who came from the Minneapolis City Conference.
Now the Gophers have one, and as Anderson said, “He’s been a lifesaver.”
Jordan Kozicky, a redshirt freshman from Minneapolis Southwest, leads the team’s regulars with a .356 batting average and .473 on-base percentage.
A super-utility player who has patched holes caused by injuries at several positions, Kozicky has reached base in 22 consecutive games.
“He brings a smile to your face,” said Anderson, whose team plays host to Georgia State on Tuesday night.
Kozicky came through the Minneapolis youth baseball system and sharpened his development with offseason training at the Hit Dawg Academy in Chaska.
When it came time for high school, Kozicky said his first and only choice was Southwest.
“I never even really considered going anywhere else,” he said. “I had friends that for other sports did that. They would go to private schools or even sometimes suburban schools, but Southwest is a great school. They have the best baseball team in Minneapolis, so I was proud to go there.”
Kozicky was a three-time all-conference selection for the Lakers and drew attention from the likes of North Dakota and North Dakota State. He wasn’t on the Gophers’ radar until a coach from St. Cloud Technical College told their coaches he was worth a look.
“We liked his makeup,” Anderson said. “He loved playing the game, very passionate. Obviously, the competition in the conference he played in made it harder to probably get a true evaluation of where he was at.
“We asked him to come as a recruited walk-on — without aid — and he didn’t hesitate. He’s just been thankful to be here. That [scholarship situation] will change. He’s earned it.”
Jared Mountain, in his 21st season as Southwest’s coach, sees Kozicky’s story as proof there is talent in the Minneapolis City Conference. Asked why more Division I players haven’t been plucked from the conference, Mountain cited economics.
“The traveling teams have become so huge now, and travel baseball is expensive,” he said. “My son plays in Burnsville, and there are 58-60 kids playing travel ball there at 10 years old.
“So those schools just have more depth than we do. But my point has always been, as a city school — if you’re good enough, they’ll find you.”
At 6-1 and 180 pounds, Kozicky is wiry strong, with a good arm and soft hands. He was primarily a shortstop and pitcher in high school but did some catching, too.
He redshirted last season as the Gophers won their first Big Ten regular-season title since 2010 and spent his summer playing for the Mankato MoonDogs, making the Northwoods League all-star team.
“The first game, they asked me if I can play first base, which I’d never played in my life,” Kozicky said. “I just played it. I didn’t think anything different. It’s all baseball. I also played a lot of outfield over the summer, for the first time of my life, as well.”
He started this season on the Gophers bench but delivered some good at-bats as a pinch hitter. Anderson said he was almost ready to give Kozicky a start at designated hitter in mid-March, when starting third baseman Micah Coffey went down because of a sprained ankle.
Kozicky took over at third base and immediately stood out with his quality at-bats and glove work.
“The coach from Ohio State came up to me [March 25] and said he’s never seen a third baseman play like that,” Anderson said.
With Coffey back from his injury, Anderson has been moving Kozicky around. Last Tuesday, in a one-run victory at Northern Illinois, Kozicky started at shortstop in place of starter Terrin Vavra and made nine assists.
“I can’t remember a time anybody had nine assists,” Anderson said.
Now, with center fielder Alex Boxwell injured, Anderson has been using Kozicky in left field, with Jordan Smith moving over to center. Anderson mentioned catcher as another option for Kozicky and said the coaching staff even approached him about relief pitching.
“He said, ‘Sure.’ He pitched in high school, had a pretty good slider,” Anderson said, smiling. “So he might be doing that before it’s over.”
It took Anderson decades to find a Minneapolis City Conference standout, but so far, it’s been worth the wait.