FAYETTEVILLE — As humble off the mound as he was 2021 confident on it, Arkansas Razorbacks reliever Kevin Kopps displayed both qualities interviewed Thursday after sweeping college baseball’s two most prestigious awards nationally honoring its Player of the Year.
Named the Dick Howser Award on June 18 as college baseball’s best, Kopps Thursday night bested Vanderbilt ace starting pitchers and fellow finalists Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter to be voted the Golden Spikes Award, the baseball equivalent to college football’s Heisman Trophy.
They are the two biggest awards among the multitude of honors Kopps achieved as a sixth-year senior starring after five mostly struggling campaigns.
“ No, it still hasn’t really set in yet,” Kopps said Thursday night of adding the Golden Spikes to honors he’s still trying to fathom. “I think I need a couple of more months. Like I said earlier, I still just kind of feel like Kevin.”
And nobody at season’s nationally mentioned Kevin while juniors Rocker and Leiter were college household words pitching Vanderbilt to the 2019 national championship and touted before and after covid cancelled the 2020 college baseball season.
“It’s an honor to be part of that group with them,” Kopps said. “If you would have told me at the beginning of the season I would have been a part of that I don’t think I would have believed you. Just because they are huge deals. And they are really good players, too. So it’s just kind of an honor to be with them.”
But Kopps showed he belonged and then some. He went 12-1 with 11 saves and nationally leading 0.90 earned run average with 131 strikeouts vs. 18 walks in 89 2-3 innings while instrumental in pitching Coach Dave Van Horn’s 50-13 Razorbacks to SEC regular season and SEC Tournament champions and into the final of the Fayetteville Super Regional.
Kopps joined current Kansas City Royals outfielder Andrew Benintendi (the 2015 Golden Spikes and Dick Howser Award winner) as the only Razorbacks to win either award.
Kopps, recently a third-round draft of the San Diego Padres, compiled a dream season in a nationally granted because of covid-19 extra sixth year after an otherwise ordinary five years that included redshirting his first year and missing another year because of Tommy John surgery.
While not to Golden Spikes extent, pitching coach Matt Hobbs in preseason predicted Kopps becoming an All-American
So asked Thursday what the Kevin” of July would have told the Kevin starting the season in February, Kopps replied, “ I’d tell myself I guess what Coach Hobbs always told me, that I was going to be an All-American and to have confidence in that. Just kind of reassure myself more because as the season went on, that’s when I started to build on top of myself and really realize who I was.”
Nutrition, Kopps generically endorsed beets juice he could specifically have endorsed for profit had the the just this month names, images and likeness opportunities for college athletes been in place, helped but Kopps said his biggest boost came from above.
“I credit it to God,” Kopps said. “I mean, that was a huge part of my year, just getting back to who I was with that and just trusting His plan.”
Frustrated hitters will tell you the plan included a devilish pitch kind of combining attributes of a cutter and slider that few could hit.
What did Kopps call the pitch most figuring in the anemic .162 combined batting average vs. those he faced?
“I usually just call it a cutter but Coach Hobbs in an interview called it Steve,” Kopps said. “And halfway through the season that’s what everybody would call it. Just Steve.”
Best he knows Kopps said it was just a “random” name Hobbs picked.
He’s hoping “Steve” brings continued success as Kopps moves on to the pros as a third-round draft choice of the San Diego Padres.
Despite his great season, it was perceived uncertain how high Kopps would be drafted because of his age, 24, obviously older than most draftees either out of high school or as third-year collegians or 21-year-old collegiate sophomores.
“I was super excited when they called,” Kopps said. “It was so fast. I mean I think everything happened within 15 seconds and then we got to watch it on TV. Just gave a bunch of hugs to my family. I’m going to sign with the Padres. I haven’t talked too much about what I’m going to do or where I might be assigned.”
Although a starter early in his career and pitching into the ninth inning of his lone start of the season in the 3-2 Super Regional championship loss to North Carolina State, Kopps presumes the Padres want him developing as a reliever.
“They didn’t say anything but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be as a relief pitcher,” Kopps said. “I like relieving a lot more. It’s more fun.”
Kopps said he’ll be ready to pitch when he’s formally signed and assigned within the Padres’ minor league system.
“I took 10 days off and then I started just lifting and throwing at the field at Baum,” Kopps said. “That’s all I’ve really been doing.”