Umphreys catches on with Husker baseball
A passion for baseball has helped Kendrick Umphreys score a unique opportunity with the Huskers.
After a high school career as a pitcher, the freshman from Treynor, Iowa, has stepped behind home plate to serve as a bullpen catcher, helping the Huskers practice and prepare for games.
The opportunity came after Umphreys made a pair of inquiries — first to learn about walk-on opportunities, then to ask if the team needed student trainers.
"I finished playing high school ball four days before moving to campus in August and was still on a baseball high," Umphreys said. "I talked with Curtis (Ledbetter, director of baseball operations) about becoming a walk-on, but that was not on option due to roster limitations."
Weeks later, having settled into the routine of being a first-year college student, the baseball bug bit again as Umphreys watched the Yankees — his favorite Major League team — play on TV.
Two of his friends had gotten jobs as student managers for other Husker athletic teams, so Umphreys decided to see if that was an option with the baseball team. The team didn't need a student manager, but Ledbetter remembered Umphreys and asked if he might be interested in catching bullpen sessions.
"I went in to talk and walked out with a mitt and a job," Umphreys said. "They took my sizes and when I showed up to work, I had a locker full of stuff."
The first Husker he helped warm up was Byron Hood, who was working on a sidearm delivery.
"My experience as a catcher was minimal, just a little bit during my eighth-grade year," Umphreys said. "I didn't know what to expect. But that first time was eye opening in terms of speed and movement on the pitches.
"I never got hit and only a few ended up in the glove. Most of them did get by me that first day."
The coaching staff and players have been patient with Umphreys, working with him and offering pointers that have helped increase his behind-the-plate comfort level. Umphreys also goes in on days off to practice catching machine-thrown pitches and watching catching instruction videos.
His first bullpen practice this spring was with Jake Diekman, a Nebraska native and relief pitcher with the Texas Rangers.
"The first time he threw a slider, it made me look like a fool," Umphreys said. "The ball came out of his hand and my glove went way out to catch it. Then, it broke and I had to bring the glove back to the plate. I was all over the place.
"I have to constantly remind myself to relax, that these guys are going to put the ball over the plate. My job is to simply catch the ball and help each pitcher build confidence on their placement as they practice and prepare for games."
Umphreys admits that his parents were a little concerned about how the new responsibility might affect his academics. However, after a few weeks, they could see he was handling the new schedule — which includes about four hours of practice each day, Tuesday through Friday.
"It's funny, before I got on the team, I found myself slacking a lot," the nutrition and health science major said. "Being a member of the team has helped me focus and be more responsible in the classroom."
Umphreys, who is also a first-generation college student, said he is enjoying every minute of being a part of the team — even though his name isn't in the lineup. And, he can't wait to watch the Huskers play this weekend as the team starts a nine-game homestand.
"I love getting the chance to build connections with the coaching staff and players," he said. "It's really cool to get to see the ball from a different angle. And, I'm absorbing all kinds of information on how to be a better pitcher."
Ultimately, he hopes the experience will help him realize a dream of becoming a baseball coach.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I'm getting because I came to the University of Nebraska," Umphreys said. "For me, this is a dream come true."