Swing for the Fences: UAFS Looks to Compete in Tough Conference

WORDS Dwain Hebda
IMAGES courtesy UAFS Athletics

Feb 1, 2024 | Featured, Life, People

For Todd Holland, the title of skipper – and the spotlight that it brings – came early. The Minnesota native played college baseball at Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma, where one day greatness was thrust upon him.

“At the age of twenty-six I got the head job at Cameron University. Right place, right time,” he says. “I was a graduate assistant there and I played for a guy named Ron Ihler. He brought me back to start my master’s degree and a year later they made him head of the fitness center and moved me to head baseball coach.

“He had coached there twenty-two years and he said he wanted to go to a lower-stress job. He said, ‘A twenty-six-year-old can handle this,’ so, I got dumped into the fire.”

As interim head coach in 2004, Todd produced the program’s first winning season in more than a decade, a more than convincing job interview that lifted the interim tag. Over the next decade, he turned the Aggies into a premier program in the South Central Region.

In the 2010 season, he led the Aggies to a 29-19 mark and an upset over nationally ranked Angelo State on the backs of multiple all-conference, all-region, and all-academic conference players. In 2011, he produced Chase Larsson, the Rawlings National Player of the Year.

Along the way, Todd has been honored with or in the running for various coaching awards, so when it came time for a change, he could have gone practically anywhere. He chose the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, landing with the Lions in 2014.

“I met my wife in Lawton, and I went to school there in Cameron,” he says. “But when you have kids, you’ve got to think about where’s the best place to raise your family. For us, Fort Smith fit the mold.”

Asked how he’d evolved in coaching style from a twenty-six-year-old protégé just a couple years removed from a decorated career that included single-season school records for total hits and doubles and a career .400 batting average, Todd says it’s all about communication.

“I’m different in that I probably listen a little better now than I did when I was twenty-six,” he says. “Back then, it was probably more ‘It’s my way or the highway.’ Forty-eight-year-old Coach Holland is more the ‘We have to process and think what’s going to be the best situation for our team to win.’”

Todd may not be the same coach he was back in Oklahoma, but the results in Fort Smith picked up where he left off. Just the fifth coach in program history dating back to 1963, his inaugural campaign led the Lions to twenty-eight wins, a fourth-place conference mark of fifteen wins and a third-place finish in the Heartland Conference tournament.

In just four years, he’d lead the squad to the best season in program history. The 2017 Lions notched thirty-five total wins, second place in conference play and UAFS’ first-ever bid to the NCAA Division II National Tournament. The following season brought thirty-two wins and another conference runner-up trophy. In addition, the Lions were ranked in the Collegiate Baseball Division II and NCBWA Division II Top 25 during the season and received its first-ever number-one ranking in the NCAA Division II South Central Region, the first UAFS program in any sport to earn a top regional ranking.

In 2019, the team placed similarly but with the added distinction of three-year starting right fielder Logan Allen being drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.

Despite all of that success, Todd’s evolution of philosophy and approach continued. He says it is as much about keeping time with the new breed of college athlete, something to which even a relatively young coach such as he has had to calibrate.

“It is one hundred percent accurate that athletes today are different,” he says. “The difference between today and when we played is kids don’t get cut anymore. When we played, if you didn’t make the American Legion team, that was the end of the road for you. Nowadays, if you don’t make the American Legion team, there’s seven hundred other teams where you can just pay a lot of money and go play.”

Todd says he recruits character guys who are as long on grit as they are on God-given talent. He says such attributes generally come with resiliency and a great attitude, which are both critical to team success.

“Most of the time, I really want to talk to the coaches and talk to them about what kind of kid they are,” he says. “A bad apple can spoil a whole orchard. These kids often don’t know they’re not a good teammate. A lot of them come from good programs but they don’t have characteristics that really help get the team on the right page. Our team’s character is really good.”

Mental toughness and character are commodities of high value, especially after the school joined the intensely competitive Lone Star Conference.

“Lone Star baseball is the SEC of Division II college baseball,” Todd says. “For the last four or five years we’ve had a team in the World Series out of the Lone Star Conference and last year we had the national championship come out of our conference. The kids know exactly what to expect when they walk into a ballpark.

“We have forty-eight conference games, so we start up right out the gate. We have to figure it out real quick or else you could be losing early. I like telling the story that in 2017-2018 our first twenty games we were five and fifteen. We made three moves, and we went on a twenty-two-game win streak. But in this conference, we don’t have the luxury of doing that. You never want to fall too far behind the eight ball because your season could be over.”

That said, the Lions will be relying on a depth of returning leadership this season, starting with roving defender and last year’s home run leader Mikey Brinton, a junior from Texas, and Booneville, Arkansas native Brandon Homer, who transferred to UAFS after three years at Arkansas State.

Other players to watch include Fort Smith Southside product Matt Schilling, a sophomore, at third base; twin brothers Jakob and Lukas Petross of Cabot, both pitchers; and junior Nico Patrick, another Texan, at catcher.

“I really feel like in order for us to win games we’re going to have to play good defense, we’re going to have to play small ball very well and we’re going to have to pitch really well,” Todd says. “That’s kind of cliché because everybody has to do those in order to win. We’re just going to have to get better at them.”

While there’s no getting around the fact the ultimate goal is to win ball games, Todd is also proud of the other things that have been accomplished besides what goes on between the lines. His players, past and present, apparently feel the same way.

“My job is to make these kids better young men as well as better players. My belief is to graduate them and in my last twenty years I’ve only ever had five kids transfer on me,” he says. “This year, I think we have twenty seniors on the team. We are a very, very, very, old team in that regard.

“I’ve been blessed. I tell people all the time that I know if I’m doing a good job by the number of weddings I get invited to, and I probably average five to seven weddings every year. So, I figure I must be doing something right.”

For a schedule and ticket information, visit uafortsmithlions.com/sports/baseball.

Do South Magazine

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