By Larry Watts
After living in seven different states in his 22 years, Kyle Knudson has finally found a home. And the University of Minnesota coaching staff couldn't be happier than to find him camped out behind home plate.
With the father being a colonel in the U.S. Army, the Knudson family has had little time to grow roots in one place and has spent time living on both coasts as well as many place in between. Kyle was born in North Carolina and has spent time in Virginia, Kansas, California and New Jersey before finally coming to Maple Grove, Minn. as a seventh grader.
"We built a home when I was heading into my freshman year of high school and decided it was time for me to stay in one school instead of doing all this moving around," Knudson says. "My father was transferred to Texas when I was a sophomore and then he was in New Jersey by my senior year. He would come home as much as he could. I never really thought of it being that rough, but when I start explaining it to someone I start thinking that really had to have been hard on my mom."
Finally able to establish himself in one community, Knudson was able to build a solid sports resume. A three-sport athlete (football and basketball in addition to baseball), including five letters in baseball, he set career records in hits, home runs and runs batted-in.
So when Minnesota head coach John Anderson and assistant Rob Fernasiere came calling, they didn't have to offer a hard sales pitch. Knudson jumped on it like he had been thrown a Little League fastball.
"It was always in the back of my mind to play for Minnesota," he says. "My father grew up in northern Minnesota and still has several family members here. I had been here for six years and had made several friends, so I really didn't want to leave. I still had to explore other options, but Minnesota was always my first choice."
One of those options was the University of Connecticut. The UConn coach had seen Knudson play while traveling through Minnesota.
"They were recruiting me pretty hard," Knudson says. "So I went out there for a visit and my dad came up from New Jersey to check it also. It was nice to have a three-day vacation with my father, but it didn't compare to what Minnesota had to offer."
When Knudson packed his bags for Minnesota, his mother also packed her bags to move to New Jersey to be with her husband. However, their stay together lasted only three years because the elder Knudson received his orders for his first hardship duty in Iraq last September and his mother returned to Maple Grove to resume her teaching duties. Since December, Knudson's father has been working in Afghanistan.
"He's been coordinating projects with textile companies to try and create more business and infrastructure in the country so they can be self-sustainable," Knudson says. "It's tough not having him at games, but he follows us over the Internet as much as possible. He calls my mother twice a week and usually checks in with me once a month."
Knudson's father has been able to read a lot of good news about his son, who is having a career year in his final season. The Golden Gophers' catcher took a career-high .328 batting average along with five home runs and 37 RBI into his final Big Ten series.
More importantly, the Gophers held a one-game lead over Michigan and Purdue heading into the final weekend and only three games separated the top eight teams fighting for six positions in the Big Ten Tournament. The traditionally powerful Minnesota program has yet to win a Big Ten title in Knudson's career. The Gophers finished a half-game behind Ohio State in the regular season last year and then lost to Indiana in the tournament championship. In Knudson's freshman year, they finished two and one-half games behind Michigan and dropped the tournament championship to Ohio State.
"We've had our chances, but we just haven't done it," Knudson says. "Freshman year, we needed to sweep Indiana in the final series and went 2-2. Last year we needed to sweep Penn State and went 2-1."
Like many freshmen with stellar high school stats, Knudson came into Minnesota thinking he would make an impact as a rookie receiver.
"Then I saw guys like Mike Mee and Nate Hanson take batting practice and I thought, 'I don't think I can do that right now and it looks like I might have to work a little harder,"' he said with a laugh. "I needed to put on more muscle, get myself into better shape and keep working on my swing."
According to Knudson, the toughest challenge in college ball is the mental side of the game. Fortunately, the Gophers work with sports psychologists both in and out of season in order to keep them prepared.
"Our coaching staff really focuses on the mental side of the game," he says. "You come in here as a freshman thinking you have all the talent, but you really have to work hard at keeping things at an even keel. Staying consistent with your approach helps keep you from going from a 5-for-5 day into an 0-for-15 slump."
As the Gophers' catcher, there isn't time to dwell on slumps. Keeping the pitching staff under control is always his primary concern.
"At Minnesota, the catchers make all the calls in the game and I really take a lot of pride in that," he says. "It takes my mind off hitting a little bit. When one of our pitchers has a good game, I feel like I had a little part in it."
Coming off a junior campaign, where he hit .301 with six home runs and 33 RBI, Knudson didn't have a lot of time to prepare for his senior season. He had double hip arthroscopy surgery in December, much like Alex Rodriguez and Chase Utley underwent. He was on crutches for five weeks following each of the surgeries and couldn't start running until the end of January or swing a bat until the end of February.
"It was a long road back, but I am stronger for it," he says. "It was a genetic thing where I had too much bone in my hips and it was wearing into my labrum. I'd go into the training room every day for three or four hours of rehab and my entire focus was on getting healthy and being there for my teammates in the weight room."
Knudson graduated May 13 with a degree in sports management. He is entertaining thoughts of eventually entering graduate school to work on a master's in education, but there's a little thing called the baseball draft that could hold the key to his future.
"It's no guarantee, but I have had scouts tell me there is a possibility I would get drafted and I would love that opportunity," he says. "Everyone needs catching. And if they tell me I can't hit, maybe I'll become a pitcher.
"I hope to keep playing as long as I can and then we'll see what happens after that. Maybe something will open up from my travels. I would like to stay involved at the youth level and maybe coach at some level."