TAMPA — University of Tampa freshman second baseman Drew Ehrhard has made a rapid adjustment to college baseball, leading the Spartans in batting at .360 (entering the week) and establishing himself as a key contributor for a team with designs on winning an NCAA Division II national championship.
"I've had some good things happen and it has been unreal," said Ehrhard, the former Wharton High School standout who captured last season's Saladino Award, given to the top senior player in Hillsborough County. "But I have to keep working every day. Freshman year is always a learning experience."
It's a familiar lesson for Ehrhard.
A few weeks into his Wharton career as a freshman, Ehrhard was taking infield practice and assistant coach Wade Boggs, the Baseball Hall of Famer, was hitting the balls.
"I clanked one. … I caught one, then threw it away. … I clanked another one. … It was horrible," Ehrhard said. "I was kind of standing there, not knowing what to think. I felt like I couldn't do anything right."
Boggs stopped and walked over to Ehrhard.
"He said, 'Okay, look, we all know you're supposed to be here,' " Ehrhard said. "You can do this. It's okay. It really calmed my nerves, then everything was all right.
"Sometimes, you have to get through a rough period, then you realize you belong."
Ehrhard hasn't had many rough patches as a UT freshman.
"You really don't see many freshmen making this kind of impact on our program — ever," Spartans coach Joe Urso said. "Normally, we're built on junior-college guys, Division I transfers, a lot of older guys. But Drew is different. He's so advanced for a young player."
Ehrhard was UT's opening-night second baseman, hitting eighth in the lineup. In his first official collegiate at-bat, he slammed an RBI single up the middle. After a teammate broke his thumb during a slide, Ehrhard was elevated to UT's No. 2 slot.
And that's where he has stayed.
"I'm just a young pup, trying to play with all these guys and they've been nothing but great with me and super supportive," said Ehrhard, one of two freshmen on UT's roster. "They give me all their knowledge and I'm grateful for that."
"We ask a lot of our two-hole hitters because they take a lot of pitches, they bunt, they hit-and-run, lots of stuff," Urso said. "Drew is a major factor there. If our leadoff hitter gets on, Drew will make things happen and we have the potential to score some runs."
Ehrhard said it's a thrill to be producing, but particularly because it's at UT, a program he always followed.Spartan baseball has been an Ehrhard family tradition.
Ehrhard's father, Rodney, was a first-team all-Hillsborough County outfielder at Plant City High School in the early 1980s. After beginning at Manatee Junior College, the father played two seasons at UT (1986-87) before spending some time as a catcher in the Yankees' minor-league organization.
"My father has been my absolute No. 1 role model, my teacher, everything," Ehrhard said. "He's beyond thrilled that things are going well for me at UT. All of us in the family (including younger brother Zach, a freshman at Wharton) are old-school baseball guys. We believe in doing things a certain way and we're not big into showboating or things like that.
"He taught us how to play and how to act. To this day, I have to clean my cleats before every game because he got on me if I stepped out there with dirty cleats. How you look is important. He always taught us to run on and off the field. Things like that. We've had a relationship through the game."
It was especially meaningful last June when Ehrhard was presented the Saladino Award in a surprise ceremony. Ehrhard said he was shocked and overwhelmed to get the award, "considering the crazy talent we had in the county, like Jordan Butler (Alonso) and C.J. Van Eyk (Steinbrenner)."
Regardless of what happens with the remainder of his baseball career, Ehrhard said he will always cherish winning the Saladino Award.
"It honestly means so much to me," Ehrhard said. "My father got really emotional. I've only seen him that way a handful of times. Knowing how much it meant to him, seeing him get all choked up, that's when it really started to sink in for me. This was something that would last forever.
"That was a great way to finish my high school career. With my first college season going well, it's all coming together. I couldn't be happier."