Freshman center fielder Austin Cousino has been a rock for Kentucky

mmaloney@herald-leader.comJune 1, 2012 

As Forrest Gump told it, life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get.

For Gary Henderson, freshmen are his chocolates.

What the University of Kentucky baseball coach has in Austin Cousino, then, might compare to Godiva's or Ghirardelli's finest.

Cousino, UK's center fielder, was named this week by Southeastern Conference coaches as league freshman of the year. The coaches also voted him to the all-SEC freshmen team, to the SEC all-defensive team and to the all-SEC second team.

Batting in the leadoff spot, he leads UK in plate appearances (239), average (.318), runs (56), hits (76), total bases (124), stolen bases (13) and outfield assists (8). He shares the team lead in doubles (19) and triples (1), is second in slugging (.519) and tied for second in homers (9).

Henderson knows such freshmen are the exception, not the rule.

"If you're planning your team's success to center around a freshman's offensive production, I think you're setting yourself up for failure. And I think the guys in the league would back me up on that," Henderson said Wednesday before boarding the team bus for a trip to the NCAA Regional tournament at Gary, Ind. "It's really hard to do. It's kind of like going into a season and penciling in a freshman as your Friday night guy. It's just really hard to get that done.

"It happens on occasion; it just doesn't happen very often. When it happens to you, just be grateful for it. Our league is predicated upon getting freshmen ready to be good sophomores, juniors and seniors."

Cousino, a 5-foot-10, 178-pounder, is from the Columbus suburb of Dublin, Ohio.

Nearby Ohio State, in the midst of a coaching change, wasn't a strong contender in recruiting Cousino. Besides, since his father, Tim, is a Michigan native, Austin grew up a fan of all things north — Michigan, Detroit Tigers, Detroit Red Wings, etc.

He was first-team Ohio as a sophomore and senior; he sat out his junior season at Coffman High School because of a torn labrum. Not wanting to miss a season, the left-hander tried to throw right-handed.

By then, Henderson was well on the recruiting path.

"We saw a lot of confidence and a very high skill level," Henderson said. "Very good athleticism, a lot of production, a lot of success. But production and success in high school don't always equate to success in college baseball."

In Cousino's case, though, the equation worked.

"Yeah, it's been a good year personally and for the team," Cousino said. "I think it's great when you have individual success, but it comes with the team success. I think that's just a credit to how good our team is and how good our lineup is because, obviously, I couldn't have won these awards without the other kids on this team. Because it's a whole team effort — pitching, defense and offense."

UK (43-16) is one win shy of matching a school record as it heads into Friday's game against Kent State.

Cousino had plans for individual success as a freshman, "but you've got to try to kind of put it on the back burner until you kind of get a taste of what this season's going to be like and what the SEC's going to be like," he said. "Coming in, I was humbled and I wanted to ... win. That was the biggest thing, was coming in here and doing a good job of getting the program back on track, providing a spark plug at the top of the order, and I think I did that pretty well."

Cousino has tailed off over the past two weeks, going 6-for-36 (.167) over his last 10 games.

Henderson says that's no big deal. A short-term slump.

"He'll bounce back," Henderson said. "He's probably going to be very good this weekend."

Even if the slump continues, Cousino is confident he can help the Cats win.

"If you're not having a great day at the plate, you can always make up for it with a play in the field, and you've got to separate those two," he said. "Because your hitting and your defense are two different aspects of the game. ... That's really what I pride myself on the most because that's something that can change the complexion of the game with one play."

You never know what you're going to get, but it will probably be good.

Mark Maloney: (859) 231-3229. Twitter: @MarkMaloneyHL. Blog: markmaloney.bloginky.com

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