Michigan Stadium is 184 miles away from Bill Davis Stadium — the home of Ohio State baseball — where the Wolverines squared off with the Buckeyes on a Friday night four weeks ago.
The next day, April 30, approximately 6,000 students filled the Big House in caps and gowns for their graduation ceremony.
One member of the Michigan baseball team — senior pitcher Kolby Wood — didn’t make the trip to Columbus with his teammates. He stayed back in Ann Arbor.
But Wood wasn’t adorned in cap and gown. While the seniors waited anxiously to turn their tassels, he felt 1,000 miles removed from the class he entered Michigan with.
As his former classmates slowly trickle out of Ann Arbor and into the working world, Wood will be back in the fall.
And it wasn’t his choice.
His dreams were right there in front of him. He could almost feel them. But it was another feeling — one in his right shoulder — that induced the most dreaded words in all of sports.
Maybe next year.
Kolby Wood was finally getting the call out of the bullpen that he’d been waiting on for three years.
After spending the better part of his first three years on campus as a relief pitcher, it was finally time for Wood to be a starter — and likely the Friday-night starter, nonetheless.
“I talked to (Michigan coach Rich Maloney) in the fall about it and then again before the season, and his plans were (to use me) as a weekend starter and if I had pitched well, probably Friday night,” Wood said. “That was my goal and I definitely had that opportunity.”
Wood will admit the path his pitching career has taken wasn’t the way he ever imagined. In three seasons, the righty has made just eight starts and posts a career record of 5-3.
“Obviously I had goals of becoming a starter, but I also am a firm believer of earning what you get,” Wood said. “I tried to not put expectations on what I had, but had goals in mind of what I wanted to achieve.”
His role has grown in each of the past two seasons, including last year’s team-leading 18 appearances out of the bullpen. While he struggled down the stretch — posting a 6.34 ERA — his strikeout-to-walk ratio (34-5) was impressive.
But while Wood’s playing time was increasing, the Wolverines’ reign over the Big Ten was slipping.
His 2008 freshman campaign — which saw Wood make nine appearances — was the last of three consecutive conference titles for the Wolverines, who haven’t qualified for the NCAA Tournament since.
Things began taking shape early in the offseason in preparation for 2011. Before summer ball, Wood passed at a chance to sign a minor-league contract with the Chicago Cubs.
And while locking down the No. 1 spot in the rotation might have been his goal, another milestone had already been reached.
The team had voted, and along with fifth-year senior second baseman Anthony Toth, Kolby was named captain.
Fifth-year senior pitcher Matt Gerbe — one of Wood’s closest friends — said it was an easy selection.
“Kolby was selected captain because he’s a great person who gets along with everybody and just overall, he does the right thing,” Gerbe said. “I think people gravitate towards him for that. He’s a very likable person. His sense of humor is contagious and puts everyone around him in a good mood.”
For Wood, it was the perfect precursor to his senior season.
“Ever since I got here, I dreamed of being captain,” Wood said. “I wanted to lead this team. I felt like I was the guy for it, so when it happened, I was excited and honored that the rest of the team looked at me that way, as well.”
With offseason expectations mounting, it was up to Kolby to lead the team back to the top.
“Kolby Wood is about as fantastic of a human being as one could ever meet,” Maloney said of his captain.
Teammates describe him as always in good spirits both on-and-off the field, rarely catching a grimace on his face.
“Kolby Wood doesn’t stop laughing — ever,” Gerbe said.
Added his mother, Jill Pierce: “He’s probably the happiest person I’ve met in my entire life. He’s always positive and he laughs at all jokes, no matter how funny they are. He is just the happiest kid I’ve ever met.”
So when Wood’s family moved from Astoria, Ore. when he was in third grade — leaving behind his entire extended family — it was no surprise that Kolby’s move went seamlessly.
Kolby had no problems making friends, but even from the start, there was one new friend he didn’t have to make — his older brother Shelby Wood, who’s just 18 months older.
The family moved to Eau Claire, Mich. — a small town in the southwest corner of the state — where their father was earning his Masters degree.
While Pierce and her husband have since separated, the brothers remain best friends.
“I think they’re as close as any siblings could be,” Pierce said. “It’s pretty much like having twins and they have never fought. They have always gotten along so well.”
As children, the brothers forged a bond through sports.
“When we were younger — obviously we didn’t have any other siblings — it was just the two of us,” Shelby said. “You’d think that brothers that close (in age) would fight a lot, but it was the opposite for us.”
And it wasn’t all baseball.
The games started with a Nerf basketball hoop set up on the front door. The duels lasted for hours, and whenever the end was in sight, the losing player would up the final score.
“It’d almost always get bumped to 150 or 200 points and we’d just keep playing for hours on end,” Shelby said.
Kolby and Shelby — two of the region’s best athletes — both became three-sport stars, playing football, basketball and baseball. By the time high school rolled around, their in-house rivalry was traded in for matching uniforms at Berrian Springs High School.
Kolby returned to Ann Arbor in the fall of 2010 for one final hurrah as a Michigan student-athlete.
By late October, while the talk of the town was the football team’s struggles, talk inside and around the Michigan baseball program was full of promise and potential.
So when Kolby began feeling a painful sensation in the front of his right throwing shoulder, he swept it under the rug.
“I would play catch for five, 10 minutes and (the pain) would kind of go away, so I was like, ‘Aww, screw this, I’m not worried about it, it’s senior year,’ ” he said. “But then it progressively got worse.”
Kolby’s voice tails off as the memories of the disastrous season begin coming back to him.
Shortly before winter break, the trainers told Kolby to lay off throwing for two months to allow anti-inflammatory medication to kick in. It didn’t work.
With the season’s opener — Feb. 18 in St. Petersburg, Fla. — just two weeks away, Kolby received a cortisone shot and took a two-week hiatus from throwing.
“I started playing catch again and (the cortisone) completely masked the pain,” Kolby said. “I was thinking, ‘Man, I’m going to be good to go.’ I was playing catch and whatnot and I had no issues.”
Maloney was hesitant to start Kolby in the opening weekend, handing him the ball to eat up meaningless innings on Feb. 20, as Michigan was already trailing Connecticut 14-2 in the sixth.
Kolby gave up a run and two hits and was pulled after committing an error in just an inning and change on the mound.
The following weekend, Maloney called on his veteran in the seventh inning of a 2-2 tie with Rutgers.
But instead of doing what he’d done so many times in his career — stifling opposing hitters in a relief appearance — he blew it, allowing up three runs off four hits and earning the loss.
The Wolverines — who just weeks earlier were selected No. 2 in the Big Ten coaches’ poll — dropped to 0-6.
And though he didn’t know it at the time, a routine fly out to left off the bat of the Scarlet Knights’ Nick Favatella was the last time Kolby would be on the mound in 2011.
Doctors diagnosed him with shoulder tendonitis and put his season on the shelf.
It was like a twister had gone through Kolby’s plans for the future, spewing them in any which way.
“It’s just too bad, because I think he was coming into it right this year,” Maloney said. “I really felt like with the fall he had, he was primed to do outstanding.”
Kolby had planned to enter the 2011 MLB Draft. Before, there was little question he would’ve been drafted, but now his dreams had to be put on hold.
Fortunately, the injury occurred early enough that he was granted a redshirt and will be able to return next season. Had it transpired even a few weeks later, his career at Michigan would’ve been over, and so too, may have been his chances of ever being drafted.
“I think it was actually most difficult on me, because this was going to be his year,” Pierce said. “It was his time to go out there and be the leader, so I think it was more frustrating for me thinking, ‘Oh no, is he ever going to get that chance to go all the way?’ He was actually the positive one through it all and he said, ‘It’ll be okay. Everything will be okay.’ ”
Although composed of just 500 students, the Berrien Springs Shamrocks have won their share of state championships.
And if the Shamrocks were to have a special year in 2006, it would be up to two of them — both of who called one house their home.
Then a junior, it was Kolby’s last chance to play with Shelby, a senior who had committed to play quarterback at North Park University, a small school in Chicago.
First came football. Under center as the star quarterback was Shelby. His favorite target? Kolby.
“When we were younger, we’d be out in the backyard throwing a football around all the time,” Shelby said. “We were always throwing around together, whether it was a legitimate route or we’d make up our own stuff. It always helps when you play for so long, knowing what the other person is going to do.”
With Kolby at 6-foot-6, Shelby estimates he threw seven to eight touchdowns to his brother that season. Had baseball not worked out, Kolby said he could’ve played small-college football as a receiver.
Berrien Springs went 9-2 and was knocked out in the second round of the playoffs.
Then came basketball, where Shelby was a starting forward and Kolby was the team’s sixth man.
The Shamrocks made a surprising run all the way to the Class C State Championship game. They lost a heartbreaker to Saginaw Buena Vista, 57-52, but not for a lack of effort from the Wood brothers.
Kolby came off the bench to score eight points and grab four rebounds, but it was Shelby who stole the show. In the final basketball game of his career, he scored 21 points on 7-for-7 from behind the arc — tying the state’s championship-game record — while adding eight rebounds.
By time the run was over, it was spring — time for baseball.
Kolby was Berrien Spring’s ace, while Shelby was No. 2. And they were good.
With the Shamrocks often playing doubleheaders, the two would switch off who started game one, while the other would try to out-do the first performance in game two.
One doubleheader still sticks out. Shelby pitched Berrien Springs through nine scoreless innings in game one, but with a 0-0 tie entering the 10th, Kolby came on in relief. He earned the win and followed it up with another win in his game-two start.
Kolby was dominant all year long, going 10-2 with a 0.96 ERA and earning All-State honors, leading the Shamrocks to a state championship with a 10-3 win over Michigan Center.
Kolby calls it his greatest sports memory.
“There’s probably not another year that will be more memorable for the two of us together, for the rest of our lives,” Shelby said.
But the magic of Kolby’s junior year wasn’t over. Despite his success on the mound, he wasn’t garnering much attention from recruiters. That all changed when his step-dad, former Cleveland Indian’s scout Dean Garcia, helped out.
And finally, a month before his senior year, at the Michigan High School Baseball Showcase at Grosse Pointe South High School, he was noticed.
“He had this really loose arm and great size,” Maloney remembers. “We knew he was going to add some weight, which would mean he’d probably add some more velocity, and he was easy to like. When I saw him, I saw big pictures for him in my mind.”
Though he was barely throwing above 80 miles per hour, coaches like Maloney and Michigan State’s David Grewe saw enough potential to offer him a scholarship.
“I wasn’t even thinking (about big programs like Michigan or Michigan State), I was just (thinking) about being able to play in college,” Kolby said.
It was time to hit the recruiting trail, but the path was a short one.
“I was able to take recruiting trips to both schools,” Kolby said. “I took one to Michigan State and it was alright. Then I took one to Michigan the weekend after and I knew right away that I wanted to come here.
“You can’t really do much better than Michigan.”
He quickly committed to Michigan. But, just days after a disappointing upset knocked Berrien Springs out of baseball’s state playoffs, came a bit of a speed bump — albeit a good one.
“I was going to eat dinner and (Maloney) gave me a call and told me (I was drafted),” Kolby told the South Bend Tribune in June of 2007. “I was really excited. It was definitely a dream of mine to get drafted so I was just stoked. I couldn’t stop smiling.”
The Detroit Tigers had picked Kolby in the 44th round of the MLB draft.
“I had always dreamed of playing baseball — as a kid, you obviously want to be a big leaguer, every kid wants that — but I guess I never really thought it’d be a reality,” Kolby said. “To have this opportunity, I was completely blown away and excited.”
But after consulting his high school teachers, coaches and most importantly, his family, Kolby decided he wasn’t ready for pro ball and kept his commitment to Michigan.
“It’s like, ‘Here your dream has come true, but is this really the right time to do it?’ ” Pierce recalled thinking. “Is it smarter to go to college and grow, get stronger, get some education? I think that’s what really helped him decide to go to Michigan. You can’t get an education any place better.”
“I think the psyche of the team was sorely affected when Kolby was injured, because there was a guy that they had seen that just has some outstanding, nasty stuff, and now all of a sudden, he wasn’t going to be pitching for us,” Maloney said. “I think that was a big blow.”
The same week that Kolby’s season came to end, the Wolverines also learned that fellow senior starting pitcher Travis Smith was also done for the year with an arm injury. The three-man rotation that Maloney had counted on was now left with just one man standing.
Whether it was the psyche, the loss in talent or just an overrated team, something had gone terribly wrong in Ann Arbor.
The Wolverines lost their first seven games and 12 of the first 15 and were never able to find steady momentum.
When the season finally ended last week with Michigan missing the Big Ten Tournament, the team had lost 10 of the final 11 conference games en route to a 17-37 record.
And Kolby was left watching from the dugout.
“It’s a daily struggle,” Kolby said. “I truly thought we were going to be one of the top teams in the Big Ten this year, so just to watch us struggle and then not to be able to help is the most difficult part. It’s just mentally taxing and difficult to try to stay positive.
“You want to help guys, but at the same time, you just want to yell and scream and curse and let out the frustration.”
As he spoke, Kolby’s frustration boiled over. His nervous chuckle turned into outright laughter.
Despite the injury, Kolby was still the captain. Being the leader became increasingly tough, in part because his rehab often coincided with practice and he no longer traveled with the team.
“You get the feeling like you don’t know if they’re trusting or respecting your opinion all the time, because then you can’t go out there and back up what you’re saying,” he said. “You can’t say, ‘Hey, do it like this,’ when you can’t go show them that you can do it as well.”
But while the team kept losing, Kolby was working harder than ever. After Minnesota came to town in early May and swept the Wolverines — essentially killing Michigan’s postseason chances — a players-only meeting was held on the field immediately after the game.
Leading the meeting: Kolby Wood.
“In the meeting, we were talking about work ethic and how the better teams in the nation — when practice is over — they don’t call it a day,” Kolby said. “They’re staying after, doing the things that other teams don’t want to do.”
Added Maloney: “Kolby didn’t just leave the park or leave this team. He kept trying to lead the team the best that he could in the position that he was. I think he did an admirable job and I think over time, the leadership training he got this year will help him and our team next year tremendously.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m excited necessarily that I got injured so I have to come back, but I don’t mind it here,” Kolby said. “It’s not a bad thing that I’m going to be here for another year. We have it pretty good here.”
Things haven’t exactly gone the way Kolby thought — or maybe even hoped — they would go at Michigan.
He wasn’t planning to wait this long to be a starter. He didn’t envision that in four years, he still wouldn’t have started a Friday-night game. And he certainly didn’t envision this type of injury.
But that doesn’t mean he regrets becoming a Wolverine.
In fact, Kolby says one of his favorite parts of Michigan is the challenge he faces in the classroom.
“I don’t have a stellar GPA and I knew it was going to be difficult when I got here, but just the fact of being able to go through it and know that I put in the time to do decent in these courses — it’s a challenge, but at the same time it’s rewarding,” he said.
Kolby is enrolled in the School of Kinesiology, where he’s majoring in movement science to one day — if baseball doesn’t work out — become a physical therapist.
“To play baseball there is fantastic, but for him to get an education at Michigan is just unbelievable,” Pierce said. “He’s going to find a job. For him to have that and be able to carry it with him the rest of his life is a huge blessing. He doesn’t take it for granted. He realizes that this was a huge thing for him.”
June 6-8 — two weeks from now — were supposed to be the days marked on Kolby’s calendar. It’s when Kolby would get that call that he’s been dreaming of his whole life.
And unlike four years ago, Kolby would gladly accept the offer from the team on the other line, telling him he’d just been drafted into Major League Baseball.
But now, Kolby — who just recently was able to stop wearing a sling and begin to move his shoulder — will be lucky to be able to play catch by then.
In the meantime, Kolby’s had a lot of time — maybe too much time — to think about what could’ve been.
“I’ve got a newfound motivation,” he said. “I’ve always considered myself a hard worker, but now I’m going to take it to a new level. I’ve been given another opportunity to come back next year and I just refuse to allow this same scenario to happen again.”
And for that to happen, Kolby will again be asked to carry the team on his shoulders — both of which will hopefully be healthy by next February.
For Michigan’s successful turnaround to occur, Kolby knows more will be asked of him as a returning captain.
“I’ve tried to work on areas of leadership that maybe I struggled at, or maybe that I haven’t been used to,” he said. “I’d never really been in a role before where you had to be vocal and call guys out when they need to be called out.
“I’ve had a lot of talks with Coach about how we’re going to run things differently to generate more competitive fire on a regular basis. I believe we’re getting things headed in the right direction.”
Kolby will graduate from Michigan next May. A month later, his senior season and career at Michigan will end. His fate will once again be left in the hands of an MLB executive who will hopefully call Kolby with the good news.
“He wants this so bad,” Pierce said. “He is such a hard-worker and he’s put so much into this. I think that was really tough, when the injury came, because I was thinking, ‘There isn’t anyone who works at this any harder than he does, so why now?’ ”
Even Kolby remains cautiously optimistic.
“I don’t know, we’ll see,” he says with a bit of hesitation. “Hopefully, I’m able to get my arm back to where it was before, if not more and have the opportunity. And if I don’t get drafted, I’d hopefully sign a free-agent deal. But as far as the draft goes, I just work everyday to get better and that’ll come as it may.”
Maybe next year, he is reminded.
And for Kolby Wood, next year can’t come any sooner.