Damen Castillo likes to maintain a routine. “I am very superstitious, especially when it comes to baseball,” says Castillo, a 2018 graduate of Highland (Ind.) High School, where he played for John Bogner, and is in his final season at Benedictine University (Lisle, Ill.) in 2022. “I have a Red Bull before every game — no matter what. “I’ll play catch in the same spot. I’ll go through the same routine for hitting.” Castillo has also been known to keep his helmet or equipment bag in the same location. Why? “I have no idea,” says Castillo, a 6-foot-2, 240-pounder who plays first base and bats clean-up for the Benedictine Eagles. Going into action Tuesday, April 26 against North Central College, the righty-swinger is hitting .381 (40-of-105) with seven home runs, nine doubles, 37 runs batted in and 25 runs scored for a team that is 21-6 overall and 15-1 atop the Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference standings (Benedictine was 29-13 and 15-5 in 2021). Because of COVID-19, Castillo has another year of eligibility remaining, but is planning to finish his degree in Management and Organizational Behavior with a concentration in Operations Management. Castillo, who spent the summer of 2021 with the Prospect League’s Illinois Valley Pistol Shrimp, says he will entertain professional baseball opportunities if they come his way. Otherwise, he intends to enter the work force, going into construction like members of his family. “I want to start out as a worker so I can learn things,” says Castillo. “I don’t want to manage something so young like that.” He has thoroughly enjoyed his college experience. “The relationships you build with people are for the rest of my life,” says Castillo. “The baseball part of it has been fun.” As an NCAA Division III program, Benedictine conducted fall workouts and then had “captain’s practice” — where coaches were not allowed instruct — in the winter. Adam Smith is the Eagles head coach. “We’ve become really close,” says Castillo. “He’s really good with everybody. He’s easy to talk to as a coach. “He’ll get on you when you do something wrong but teach you so you can do it right the next time.” Benedictine practices tend to top out at two hours and there is also weightlifting and extra hitting during a typical week. “Coach Smith likes to give us free time,” says Castillo. “You’ve got to get away from it a little bit.” Castillo, who lives in an on-campus apartment with three teammates, likes to relax with video games like Call of Duty and MLB The Show.
Kolin Conner is doing his best to get Concordia University Chicago back to the lofty heights the Cougars baseball program had become accustomed. From 2008-19, CUC posted an average record of 35-11 including 40-15 in 2018 and 42-10 in 2019. Conner was the Cougars head assistant (2016-19) — years in which the school won four Northern Athletic Collegiate Conference regular-season titles and made NCAA Division III World Series appearances in 2017 and 2018. During the span, CUC was ranked No. 1 in the nation and Conner was named 2018 American Baseball Coaches Association Assistant Coach of the Year. A graduate of Indianapolis North Central High School (2009) and Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind. (2013), Conner took over as head coach at the private school in River Forest, Ill., in the summer of 2019. The Cougars went 5-5 during the COVID-19 pandemic-shortened 2020 season and 11-25 in 2021. NCAA D-III rules allow for 19 total weeks of organized baseball activity — four in the fall and 15 in the spring. Concordia practiced four times a week during the fall. “We did a lot of teaching. developing and evaluating where our guys are on the depth chart,” says Conner. “After last year, there was a little bit of re-establishing priorities for us. “The work we put in now leads to success in the spring. It’s about holding everybody accountable. The overall success is much bigger than one individual.” Conner says the most-important time comes when players are away from coaches in between fall and spring and must motivate themselves and stay on top of their academics. “Here’s a 17-year-old freshman,” says Conner. “How’s he going to be when no one’s watching? That’s when good leaders and good people are made.” Conner and his coaching staff of head assistant/pitching coach Matt Smith, assistant Abe Paz Agudello, assistant Connor Nelson and graduate assistant Kevin Garcia are getting players to create lifelong habits that will transfer into their lives beyond college. “They get into the world world and (employers and co-workers) can trust these guys,” says Conner, who is currently busy recruiting, doing office work and getting ready for the return of players to practice after the Christmas break. CUC baseball earned an ABCA all-academic team certificate, sported seven players with a 4.0 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale last spring while posting a 3.2 team GPA — the best among the school’s nine male sports. The Cougars typically have 10 to 12 academic all-conference selections. The roster — currently at 36 — has 22 from the Chicagoland area plus Indiana’s Ben Collins (Chesterton), Elijah Hickman (Rensselaer Central), Brody Mariotti (Yorktown) and Westin Stutzman (Fairfield), six from Arizona (CUC recruits there each fall), two from California and one each from Colorado and Utah. “We get a lot of good and smart kids that don’t have schools to go to,” says Conner. “(Chicago recruits) are used to cold weather and facilities and proud of the city they’re from.” Conners says most players get some sort of aid — packages largely being dependent on grades and test scores — that takes away around half of the annual $42,000 tuition. “It’s important that we’re getting the good character kid who wants to work and wants to win,” says Conner. “Those type of kids are usually pretty good academically. “It’s no coincidence that are best players are usually are best students.” A typical recruiting class is 10 players and Conner says he likes to have five or six signees around Christmas. Conner played for Phil McIntyre at North Central, making varsity as a sophomore and representing the Panthers either as a catcher or outfielder and making long-time friendships. He credits assistant/teacher Andy Noble for helping him in the classroom. “He helped me find my way and who I was as a kid,” says Conner of Noble. Conner was a catcher and first baseman in college. He played two seasons at National Community College Athletic Association member Lincoln Trail College in Robinson, Ill., for Statesmen head coaches Mitch Hannahs (2010) and Kevin Bowers (2011). Hannahs, who is now head coach at Indiana State University. was “very, very good at getting you conditioned mentally and getting the most out of people as players.” Current LTC head coach Bowers brought Conner into the program. “He really, really cares about the kids,” says Conner of Bowers. “He’s got a strong relationship with everybody he recruits.” At Saint Joseph’s, Conner earned an Educational Studies degree with a Communications minor and played two seasons (2012 and 2013) for Pumas head coach Rick O’Dette. “He’s the greatest guy ever,” says Conner of O’Dette, who became head coach at Saint Leo University in Florida when SJC closed its doors after the 2017 season. “He’s the reason I have a job in college baseball. “He’s an unbelievable guy, a great mentor and cares about people.” Conner played two summers of independent professional baseball after college with the 2013 Mike Braymen-managed Joliet (Ill.) Slammers and 2014 Andy McCauley-managed Evansville (Ind.) Otters — both in the Frontier League. Kolin met future wife Lyndsey at Lincoln Trail. The Conners now have two children — son Leo (3) and daughter Layla (4 months).