By Larry Watts
Unlike the legendary Samson, who lost strength when his hair was sheared, Northwestern University sophomore Paul Snieder has been experiencing "locks" of success since shedding his shoulder-length mane as a freshman.
"I got a buzz cut freshman year and donated it all to Pantene for cancer patients," the Honolulu native says. "I've kept it rather short since, but this year some of the guys on the team started doing something different with their hair, so I decided to come up with something.
"I had this stencil laying around that I had made over the summer when I became bored. We placed it on my head to block out certain areas and cut around it. I wasn't about to let him do it freehand."
With sophomore teammate Chris Kontos operating as the barber, the end product was a map of the Hawaiian Islands.
"A few people noticed what it was right away and once I told others who asked, they usually responded by saying, 'Oh yeah, of course,"' he says with a laugh.
But what the Wildcat first baseman/relief specialist has been doing in the Big Ten this spring has been no laughing matter.
After batting a meager .244 in 46 games as a freshman last year, he has been lighting up opposing pitchers at a near-.400 clip (.374) this spring. The 6-foot-2 left-handed swinger is also ranked among Big Ten leaders in on-base average (.455) and slugging percentage (.561). He has also contributed six home runs and 15 doubles.
"I was used primarily against right-handers last year," he says. "But with experience, I have learned to recognize off-speed pitches better and I'm swinging at the better pitches now instead of the bad ones. I'm making them get me out rather than letting them get me out.
"Hitting is all a confidence thing. You go up there, pick up the pitches the best you can and wait for a good pitch to hit. I always try to go up to the plate with a positive approach. If I'm having an 0-for-3 day, it's not like I need to get a hit, it's more like I'm going to get a hit. If you have negative thoughts, bad things will continue to happen."
What he has done offensively has been equaled by his pitching, where the right-hander has developed into one of the top stoppers in the conference. He leads the Big Ten with 11 saves in 20 appearances and has limited hitters to a .173 batting average while posting an ERA of 1.73. That's a far cry from the 15.63 ERA he posted in six appearances last year.
"I came here mainly with the idea of playing first base, but I was a pitcher also," he says. "However, I made adjustments and struggled my senior year of high school after having very good years as a sophomore and junior. I spent my entire freshman year (at Northwestern) trying to get it back together and now it's happening."
Snieder's path to Northwestern was more a bit of luck than anything. According to the sophomore, Northwestern head coach Paul Stevens was on vacation with his family in Hawaii and decided to take in some summer tournament games. Stevens was focused on Michael Jahns, a pitcher from Kihei, Hawaii. Jahns would end up leading the Cats with a 3.63 ERA as a freshman.
"Coach Stevens convinced me to take a recruiting trip to Northwestern and I decided to stop by on my way to visiting Cornell," Snieder says. "I wound up getting offered an athletic scholarship to Northwestern while all Cornell could offer was academic aide. I thought the scholarship plus the location offered me better opportunities."
From a weather standpoint, it didn't take Snieder long to figure out the difference from playing baseball in Hawaii compared to Evanston.
"That freshman year was a real shocker," says Snieder, who was actually born in Ottawa, Canada and moved to Hawaii with his family when he was 5. "I had never played in a game where the temperature was 36 degrees when it started. That was just brutal. It hasn't been too bad this year, but we did play in snow at Penn State and that was the first time I've ever done that."
Snieder's turnaround is one of the key reasons the young Wildcats have managed to stay in the thick of wacky Big Ten race, where only two games separated the first and last place teams heading into the final two weekends of regular season play. Despite a losing record overall (21-27), they were 10-8 in conference play.
"We haven't been caught up in thinking about the race," he says. "The biggest thing is we believe we can play with anyone in the Big Ten and now we're proving it. We had a rough start to our (nonconference) season and then all of a sudden the hitting, defense and pitching just started to click. I can't put a finger on when that happened, but it all seemed to come together at once.
"Last year (14-35-1) was very frustrating, especially since we lost a lot of games in the eighth and ninth innings. But you can't think about things like that too much. You just have to go out and turn the page, and we've done that with a lot of freshmen and sophomores making big contributions."
Majoring in mechanical engineering, Snieder would eventually like to design engines for cars. However, the thought of playing Major League Baseball is still at the top of his priority list. He will return to Hawaii this summer to play in a collegiate league, like he did with five of his Wildcat teammates last year. Then he would jump at a chance to prove himself in Cape Cod summer play after his junior season.
"If I get drafted after my senior year, I would definitely go," he says. "There's no point in not going and throwing away that opportunity. All you need is an opportunity to show what you can do. If you can do it, great. If not, then you go find a job."
Snieder says he has yet to talk with Stevens and pitching coach Tim Stoddard about how he figures into pitching plans for next year. If they see him as a starter, then he will have to develop another pitch to go along with his fastball and slider.
"I only need two pitches right now because I'm only seeing each batter once," he says. "If I see them more than once, then I'm in trouble. I do have a changeup, but it's not fully developed yet."
Just like Northwestern's baseball team -- young and not fully developed. But another year's experience could make a vast difference.