There’s a slight breeze in the air, clouds in the sky but the sun is peaking through. More importantly though, baseball is being played. Next up to bat is number twelve, Jon Kozarian, shortstop for Slippery Rock University. Kozarian has done it a million times before. This was no different. Well, maybe it was a little different. This time Kozarian was a senior and playing his final season for the school he had long wanted to go to.
When he started playing baseball at Baldwin High School in Pittsburgh, he started to crave stability. Having three different coaches in a matter of only a few years was less than ideal, but it didn’t bug him too much. He was just content to be out on the field.
“I started on the varsity baseball team for three years, overall it was great experience, but we switched coaches about three times, so I never really got comfortable with the coaches,” Kozarian said.
When in high school, Kozarian only looked a few schools, and of those schools was Slippery Rock. It was one that stood out to him, and then the offer came.
“I didn’t really look at many places to go after high school, Slippery Rock was one of my main schools that I was looking at, so the fact that I got an opportunity to come here was a dream,” Kozarian said.
In any sport, a coaching change is hard. It often brings new philosophies and ideas. It’s also usually due to poor play, but with a player like Kozarian there was always hope. When it came time to look for a school, stability was something that played a little bit of a factor. With stability at the coaching position, no one does it quite like Slippery Rock Head Coach Jeffery Messer. Messer is now in his 37th season as head coach of The Rock baseball team.
“Coach Messer has been here for I don’t even know how long, 35 plus years, so to know that I was coming into a program that has been so stable and had a winning atmosphere around it was great,” Kozarian said.
In his first year here though, the decision was made to redshirt Kozarian. In most cases, redshirting can be difficult. When redshirting, a player gives up an entire year of play to learn. Kozarian was there for it though, and in a lot of ways, he feels it made him a better player.
“I was really fortunate to redshirt behind a lot of really good infielders and a lot of really good players my freshman year, and I was able to learn and develop a little bit more,” Kozarian said. “The coaches came to me at the beginning of the year and let me know that that was what they wanted me to do, I was all there for it, and it’s worked out so far.”
It wasn’t until 2019 that Kozarian would finally step foot on the field. Since then he’s started every single game he’s played in during his collegiate career. He was one of only four players to start all 43 games in 2019. That season, things didn’t pan out the way anyone expected though. The team posted a record of 15-28 and missed playoffs. The hunger grew in Kozarian.
2020 would be long anticipated but gone in the blink of an eye.
The Rock played just 10 games in 2020 before COVID-19 hit and everything shutdown. The spring sports were the only sports that weren’t played fully at The Rock in 2020, and with baseball being one of those, things were put into perspective.
“It was weird, because we just got back from our spring trip and we played Kutztown [University of Pennsylvania] and after the game we couldn’t even shake hands because they said COVID-19,” Kozarian said. “We didn’t even know what was going on, and that year we thought we were going to be really good, so to have that season just end abruptly was kind of a shock.”
Kozarian still wanted to play though. Luckily, he was able to that summer in a league close to home, but the competition was nothing like college. Still, it was baseball and he wanted to play like never before.
“There was local league that was put together real quick for like a month and a half in Greentree, Pennsylvania, close to home, that I was able to play 25 to 28 games in,” Kozarian said.
The even weirder part was that as things continued to progress, Kozarian had no clue whether or not he’d back out on the field for the 2021 season. Both fall and winter sports had been canceled, so playing in the spring seemed like it wasn’t going to happen. But he still trained like he always would.
“We didn’t know until right before we were back in the fall exactly how the season was going to run,” Kozarian said. “But I just stuck to my plan, if we weren’t going to play, I was just still going to train at the barn and wherever I could find a field to hit.”
They did play and it’s a good thing they did. In 37 games, Kozarian hit .421 with six home runs and 28 RBI’s. He also received a lot of honors, which he doesn’t like to think about. To him, it’s just business as usual and he wants to focus on team play.
“I feel like we lost a lot of close ballgames, and our defense could’ve been there in a lot of spots,” Kozarian said.
The team ended with a 23-14 record and once again missed the playoffs. But now, Kozarian has switched to shortstop for this season and feels that this will be his best year.
“I grew up playing shortstop my entire life, so I’m really comfortable there and I came here as a second baseman and played two years there,” Kozarian said. “Then this summer I was in Massachusetts in the New England league, and the coach needed me to play shortstop and I felt really good there and my arm felt good, so Coach Messer made the switch here too.”
The team’s been projected to place second in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) this year, and Kozarian is happy that they’re finally getting the respect that they’ve earned among the top teams. Kozarian thinks that defense is going to be the reason for a long run. Although he’ll be touching home plate for The Rock for the final time, he has hopes to go out with a bang.
“This teams been close together for a long time, and this year I think our pitching and defense is going to carry us to a lot of wins,” Kozarian said.