OAKDALE -- Nate Gregory had a moment of clarity in a 12-mile march at the 101st Airborne assault school. He was approaching a steep hill, with rivals in close pursuit, when his sergeant shouted advice.
"I was going to run down the hill to get separation from the guys behind me," Gregory said. "He told me to run up the hill, too. The psychological impact of seeing me run uphill in full gear would be too much for anyone chasing me. It was a great life lesson."
No one caught Gregory and he's remembered the lesson.
"You need to remember the mental side of competition," Oakdale High's pitching coach says. "It's not just the physical skills, it's being able to show someone that you're mentally tough and that you are not going to get beaten."
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That mentality has allowed Oakdale to produce a stream of college pitchers -- eight have earned scholarships in his seven seasons -- and made its program one of the best in the Sac-Joaquin Section.
Oakdale (22-8) has won two of the last three Division 4 titles and goes for a third today when it faces El Dorado (27-2) at 6 p.m. at Zupo Field in Lodi. El Dorado is ranked No. 2 in the state by CalHi Sports, while Oakdale is unranked.
Oakdale will start junior ace Brennon Williams (8-1, 1.20 ERA), the latest pitcher Gregory has helped develop. Two of his star pupils, Boone Whiting at Centenary College and Justin Jones at Cal, are the aces of their college staffs.
Gregory provides similar guidance to Williams, though he arrived with plenty of talent. Practices focus on pitch selection, adjusting to hitters between at-bats and mechanics, but the coaching continues throughout every game.
"You look to see if anything changes in their motion," Gregory says. "You want to be able to make an adjustment in one pitch. We noticed Brennon would lift a leg and pause during his motion. Now, when he reaches that peak, he drives toward the plate."
Another vital aspect, Whiting says, is the relationship between pitcher and coach.
"Baseball is about rhythm. so you need to be on the same page calling pitches and working hitters," says Whiting, named the Summit Conference Pitcher of the Year last week. "It instills confidence in both of you. I learned a lot about competing from Nate. I had been throwing, but not really competing as a pitcher. I learned to go after batters."
Gregory graduated from Modesto High in 1991, after what he called an uneventful career, and spent two years in the Army as a forward observer for artillery. He threw at Delta College after his stint in the Army, then helped the College of Idaho win a NAIA World Series in 1998. He enjoys providing an honest assessment of his talent, because it provides optimism for kids looking to college.
"I was an OK player, but I certainly wasn't great," Gregory says. "We preach getting good grades I tell the kids they don't have to be great to play somewhere. There are a lot of opportunities, especially for kids still developing."
Whiting is an example of that. He pitched in youth ball, but played infield at Oakdale the first first two years.
He was converted to a pitcher as a junior and led the Mustangs to a section title in 2007, and he was recruited by Centenary College in Louisiana.
"We look for kids who have a natural arm swing," Gregory says. "We saw it in Boone while playing catch. The ball jumped out of his hand when he released it. You can't teach someone that. They have it. You just have to develop it."
It was different with Jones, who led Oakdale to its title in 2008 and is 10-5 as a true freshman at Cal. He was a highly touted pitcher when he arrived on the varsity, so Gregory only had to tinker.
"Gregory helped me greatly with my mental game and never hesitated to tell me that I'm pulling my glove-side shoulder off too early, or dragging my arm," said Jones, The Bee's Player of the Year last spring. "Pitchers look for someone they can trust, someone they can talk to about both the mental and physical concepts, without the coach changing or transforming who they are as a pitcher."