August 29, 2008

Former Red Player Returns as Coach

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With all due respect to Thomas Wolfe, you can go home again. Bill Walkenbach ’98 will return to the top step of the Hoy Field dugout this spring as head coach of the baseball team.
Although he assumes the helm of a ball club that finished last in the Gehrig Division each of the past three seasons, Walkenbach hopes to return the program to the same prominence it had attained while he was an assistant coach at Cornell from 2003 to 2005.
The Claremont, Calif. native succeeds Tom Ford, who has transitioned into the role of associate head coach with the program after managing the team for 18 seasons. Walkenbach, a former standout player for the Red, has gotten coaching experience all over the country since he graduated ten years ago.
[img_assist|nid=31277|title=Here’s the windup|desc=Pitcher Bryce Klinesteker ’08 was in one of the recruiting classes compiled by new head coach Bill Walkenbach in his last tour of duty at Hoy Field, which ended in 2005.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“You never know what can turn a team around, whether it’s the introduction of a new freshman class or the introduction of new philosophies,” Walkenbach said. “It’s very difficult to predict. I hope with a fresh start for the team, maybe things will turn around.”
Still in the process of transitioning from Lancaster, Pa., where he was the head coach of Franklin & Marshall, Walkenbach has much to learn about his new team.
“I’m trying to get a general feel for the talent level of the team and figure out where we stand with each position,” Walkenbach added. “Figuring out the depth chart is an important thing to know. I know the staff is very strong, and I know we’ve got some guys on the offensive side, who can really do some damage, so I’m looking forward to seeing them play.”
Walkenbach, however, will see a few familiar faces when he encounters this year’s senior class, a group of players which he recruited to Cornell when he was still with the program in 2005.
“Those guys who I know have already been in to say ‘hello,’” Walkenbach said. “They know what to expect from me, which helps on their side of things and I know what to expect from them, which helps on my side of things. I think they’ve been able to communicate to the other players a little bit what I’m about.”
One of those recruits is senior shortstop Scott Hardinger, who expressed optimism about Walkenbach’s coaching style.
“There’s always a little nervousness with a new coach because you don’t know what he’s going to be like, but I think in general that everybody is really excited,” Hardinger said. “He is very energetic and enthusiastic. You see that in a coach and makes you excited as a player.”
Along with the differences that occur when any coaching regime change takes place, Hardinger hopes Walkenbach’s added emphasis on “mental toughness” translates into more victories. The Red dropped 10 games decided by two runs or fewer last season, and the squad hopes to be on the other end of those close decisions with more practice in high pressure situations.
In his three seasons at F&M, Walkenbach led the Diplomats to a 69-42 overall mark and a pair of Centennial Conference regular season championships. However, Walkenbach acknowledged the differences between coaching a Division III school and a Division I school.
“You notice a difference in the depth of talent on the teams,” Walkenbach said. “There’s a much more national approach to recruiting here. Franklin & Marshall was a bit more regional, but with Cornell, just the name recognition of the university itself allows me to recruit in places where there happen to be a lot more talented baseball players. There comes a time when you get a little bit tired of losing out on recruits to Division I schools. Now, in this environment, we can beat those other schools for recruits.”
As the importance of recruiting rises, Walkenbach appears to have a proven track record. Three of the four highest batting averages on the team last year belonged to players Walkenbach recruited prior to his departure in 2005.
Voted the Red’s Most Valuable Player in 1995, 1996 and 1997, Walkenbach has enjoyed unparalleled success on the diamond himself. He is listed in the top-5 of 11 offensive categories for Cornell, including a tie for the school lead in career home runs with 21.