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The Next Great St. Cloud State Catcher

11/05/2018 - 10:45 AM

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The Next Great St. Cloud State Catcher
Toran Shahidi

In head coach Pat Dolan’s tenure at St. Cloud State University, elite catchers setting up shop in the Huskies’ lineup has been the norm.

 
Dolan’s top-rate catcher tradition began with the Nate Hammes era, spanning from 2008 to 2010. Hammes posted three straight seasons with an OPS of .888 or better, while driving in 40+ runs in 2009 and 2010. The former Concordia-St. Paul Golden Bear also gunned down runners at a 25.9% clip over his SCSU career. His backup in 2009, Jeremy Ische, was recently named head coach at Upper Iowa.
 
After Hammes’ graduation, Travis Enger took over as SCSU’s backstop in 2011, slashing .339/.397/.441 while posting a 32.6% caught stealing rate in his redshirt-freshman season and finishing his career with back-to-back seasons with a caught stealing rate better than 40.0%. In the following season, redshirt-freshman Michael Jurgella joined the fray, sharing time with the defensive-minded Enger from 2012 to 2014. In his four seasons at SCSU, Jurgella’s OPS never dipped below .870, and had an OPS of 1.000+ in his redshirt-junior and senior years. His senior campaign was a monster one, slashing .399/.482/.690 for a 1.172 OPS, 16 doubles, 2 triples, 14 bombs, and 64 RBI.
 
The Zach Metzger era began in 2016, as the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi transfer caught 42 games for the Huskies in his junior season. “Metz” gunned down baserunners at a 37.0% clip and posted an OPS of .774 while handling a pitching staff that contained two All-Americans in Reese Gregory and Sheldon Miks. Metzger’s 2017 senior season started splendidly, but an injury to his knee cut his year short, opening the door for junior Bemidji State transfer and St. Cloud Cathedral grad Bo Schmitz to take the reigns behind the dish. Despite the injury, Metzger clubbed 10 doubles and drove in 26 runs in 28 games, posting an OPS of .898 and leading the NSIC with a 50.0% caught stealing rate. Schmitz led SCSU with 58 runs scored, slashed .328/.414/.419 and belted 9 doubles, 1 triple, and 2 home runs while stealing 10 bags. As a senior in 2018, Bo capped off his Huskies career by slashing .359/.422/.558 and led the team with 8 home runs to go with 44 RBI.
 
As the Huskies’ 2018 campaign wrapped up at the NCAA Central Region Tournament in May, SCSU graduated four seniors: starting centerfielder Jackson Goplen, starting designated hitter Isaac Matchinsky, reliever Logan Sandgren, and Schmitz. Dolan and his staff had essentially wrapped up their recruiting by this time, with a talented class of prep stars and JUCO transfers coming in to fill the Huskies’ opening roles. However, one position remained unfilled.
 
The Huskies needed a veteran, high-impact catcher, and they had none on roster.
 
Enter Toran Shahidi.
 
The 5’6, 180-pound backstop spent five seasons as the starting catcher at Ames High School in Ames, Iowa, graduating in 2014. Entering his senior season, he had no idea if he would have the opportunity to play college baseball.
 
“Going into my senior season of high school, I didn’t know (if) I was going to play college baseball. I was 5-foot-6, 145 pounds…I had no chest on me, I had no arms, I couldn’t really squat that much, I couldn’t bench. I was weak. I was physically inferior to my competition at the higher levels. But…I outplayed my tools with heart, being smarter than everyone else. I did my best every single day, I worked my butt off. It was a goal of mine to get a college scholarship at the college level, I just didn’t know what level. Kirkwood came and saw me at a tournament, I did good, and they offered me a scholarship.” Shahidi said.
 
Kirkwood Community College lies in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, home of the Cedar Rapids Kernels, the Minnesota Twins Low-A affiliate. Shahidi’s intangibles, along with his talent, caught the eye of Eagles head coach Todd Rima.
 
Rima recounted, “The thing that stood out for us right away was two things. The way that Toran played the game. Tremendous energy, hard worker, loved the game, and then Toran just had an infectious personality. He was a guy that people wanted to be around, he was a leader, and we wanted that to be part of our program. That was a big piece of why we went after him, and he delivered that when he got here. He was exactly the kid that we thought we were getting, and we loved having him be a Kirkwood Eagle.”
 
Shahidi burst onto the scene as a freshman at Kirkwood, playing in 29 games and slashing .342/.473/.411 for an .883 OPS. The righthanded-hitting catcher walked at a 14.3% clip, clubbed 5 doubles, and drove in 9. His stellar arm flashed plus for the Eagles, nabbing 6 of 12 opposing baserunners. He spent the summer of 2015 in the Prospect League with the Quincy Gems of Quincy, Illinois, gaining experience with a wood bat. He struggled at the plate, largely due to a .191 BABiP.
 
Then, as he was preparing for his sophomore season in the fall of 2015, a nagging injury from the winter prior began to increase in severity.
 
Shahidi remembered, “In the winter of my freshman year at Kirkwood, there were me and a couple other guys that liked to play around with some hang cleans and power cleans after we got done with our team lift. I’m in there one day, doing some good amount of weight, I catch a clean and my right shoulder sinks down. I’m like ‘Ah, that’s nothing, I’ll be fine.’ About a week later, I start to notice bruises around my elbow, which is just blood pooling. I called my grandpa, he’s a physical therapist, and he says, ‘You probably tore something up in your shoulder, minor, you should be fine.’ Playing through the year, I couldn’t catch three or four games a week. I could catch two. I could catch two really good ones and I’d have nothing left. So I’m like, ‘Something’s up here. Maybe I’m tired, I’m not strong enough body-wise.’ I played the year, had a good year, then I went to summer ball and couldn’t throw anybody out. I’d get nothing on a throw to second…I go back to Kirkwood for my second year, and I’m feeling really good…I go in on my pro day. In high school I threw about 77-78 to second base. On my pro day I threw like 71.”
 
Soon thereafter, Shahidi went in to his strength coach for testing, and was told that he likely had a torn labrum. 
 
“I was like, ‘No, this is fake, this isn’t real, I’m probably fine, just needed rehab.’ I played the next day in our scrimmage as our DH, and I’m like eh, I feel fine. I was trying to beg my coaches to let me play, they wouldn’t do it because they knew I was hurt, so I call my dad to say something’s up here. One of my good high school friends, his dad runs all physical therapy out of Ames, Iowa…One of his good friends is the head surgeon for Iowa State. And he’s like, ‘Hey, we’ve got a catcher here, one of Sam’s friends, you need to help him out.’ So I’m set up for an appointment the next day on September 5th. I go in there for my appointment, and he says, ‘Yeah, you look really weak here. We need to get this checked. I want to set you up for an MRI here in an hour. I’m sitting here for a process that usually takes a couple weeks, and I’m getting it done in a day. They go in, they do the MRI, said they’d call me with the results on Monday. I wait till Monday, I’m sitting in class, get the call, walk into the hall, and he says, ‘Toran, you have a significant tear of your labrum. You’re going to need surgery.” And I’m just…I’m just sitting there in class, and I’m about ready to cry, because I know everything I’ve worked this hard for is right at my fingertips, and it’s going to be taken from me. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew the recovery, I knew the return rate was very, very low, it’s like 20% recovery return to anything like what they were. I call my dad, we go back in to talk about setting up surgeries and when we’re going to do it, and he (the surgeon) says, ‘I can’t tell you that you’re ever going to catch again. You could probably play first base.’ Look at me. I’m 5’6 and 155 pounds at this time. I’m not going to play first base. I don’t hit for power, I don’t run, so it’s not going to work out. They did the surgery on October 5th. I had some dark times prior to it, just…depression, kind of worrying about it and not knowing if I’m ever going to get back to it. Have surgery on October 5th, and ever since then I’ve known who I was. That’s the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life, and I’ve grown as a man doing it.”
 
Because of the injury, Shahidi was forced to redshirt in 2016. Rima remembers seeing his catcher’s tremendous character shining through during the trying year.
 
Said Rima, “You know, I think that’s tough on anybody. Toran loves the game, he loves to play, I think it was tough at first for him…The thing I really admired throughout it, Toran became a leader in not playing. And he brought energy to games and practices even when he couldn’t compete, the guys rallied around him a little bit, and that I really, really respected. You learn a lot about a kid when times get tough. And the way he handled it, I don’t if I’ve had a kid handle it as well as he did. And just to see that he had an impact on our team, even when he knew every day that he couldn’t play, I thought that was pretty special. I’ll always remember that about Toran.”
 
After a long and arduous recovery time, Shahidi made his return to competitive baseball with the Wisconsin Woodchucks of the Northwoods League late in the summer of 2016. Despite going from facing zero college pitching for nearly a year to matching up against some of the best arms in the country, Shahidi hit .235 with a .316 on-base percentage in 9 games for the Chucks’. 
 
Something seemed off for Toran as he readied for his 2017 redshirt-sophomore campaign, discovering that he needed contacts right before Kirkwood’s season began.
 
Shahidi posted a .252/.404/.364 slash line at Kirkwood in 2017, cumulating in a .769 OPS with 9 doubles, 1 home run, and 19 RBI. He again impressed defensively at catcher, but he was quick to point out that he didn’t produce as well as he thought he should.
 
“I could have been better. I could’ve been a better teammate. I could’ve been better at the plate. I had so many opportunities to help my team win games, and I just couldn’t come through. I was trying to do things offensively that just didn’t work, I was really choppy through the zone, I was trying to hit way too many nukes, I was not myself…I wasn’t me. Defensively, I was really good, offensively, I was just disappointed with myself that I couldn’t help my team.”
 
After a tremendous showing at a showcase, shining defensively and going 3-4, Shahidi received a call from the University of South Carolina-Upstate Spartans, a Division I NCAA program in the Atlantic Sun Conference. He went on a visit, and quickly committed.
 
At USC-Upstate, Shahidi served as the everyday DH while backing up Charlie Carpenter, selected by Atlanta in the 26th round of the 2018 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft, at catcher. Shahidi burst out of the gate early, his average holding steady between .280-.310, but then a cold spell dragged his production down. He struggled mightily for roughly half a month, his average dipping to .230 on April 8th after the Spartans’ road series at the University of North Florida. Then, in Upstate’s midweek road tilt with UNC-Asheville on Tuesday, April 10th, Shahidi figured it out.
 
“I’m taking BP, and my first round is hit-and-run, and I hit a ball over the third base dugout, I hooked it so bad. I’m sitting there thinking, ‘What is going on? Alright, we’re going to make a few changes here. Just going to make a few simple adjustments.”
 
And boy, did those adjustments work. Shahidi went 3-5, falling a triple shy of the cycle while belting his first NCAA DI home run. Over his final 17 games, including the springboard start against Asheville, Toran slashed .338/.417/.473 for an .890 OPS to go with 5 doubles, one triple, and the lone home run and 11 runs driven in. All in all, Shahidi posted a .280/.405/.379 slash line at Upstate with 11 doubles, the triple and home run, and 19 RBI across 43 games and 41 starts. He started 12 games behind the dish, with the remaining 29 starts coming at DH. While at catcher, Shahidi gunned down 28.6% of opposing baserunners, didn’t allow a single passed ball, and produced a .990 fielding percentage.
 
Four years removed from high school, Shahidi decided he wanted to finish off his collegiate career closer to home. He mutually parted ways with USC-Upstate and began his search for the “perfect fit” for his fifth-year senior campaign. 
 
Enter the Huskies.
 
St. Cloud State had spent the 2017-18 recruiting period recruiting Toran’s younger brother, Tavan, to fill their hole at catcher in 2019. Tavan committed to the University of Maryland in June, and while the Shahidi family was celebrating Tavan’s commitment at dinner, the newly-signed Terrapin pitched his older brother an idea.
 
“We’re sitting at dinner, for him, and he says, ‘You know where you’re going yet?’ I say, ‘I have no idea.’ He says, ‘Why don’t you go to Cloud?’ I say alright, I’ll check it out, and he shoots Dolan a text at dinner. He says, ‘Hey, my brother’s a DI kickback looking for a school for his fifth year. No more than five minutes later am I on the phone with Dolan, and this guy keeps talking about ‘Slam dunks,’ and ‘Oh, it’s gonna be a slam dunk for us if you come here!’ And I’m like, who is this guy? This guy’s way too nice to be a baseball coach here.”
 
Three days later, Toran made the trip to the Granite City to visit St. Cloud State. Of course, he brought Tavan along with him. He was blown away by his experience.
 
“I’m walking around campus, and Doc is showing me all these things and talking about it, and I am so impressed by the campus here. The people, everyone I met was top-notch, it was truly great. I’m walking around and I’m like, ‘I could see myself just going to school here.’ It didn’t hurt that he explained that they had 15 seniors coming back.”
 
About two weeks after his visit, Toran called Dolan with the news that he was going to be a Huskie.
 
With fall ball recently completed, SCSU associate head coach Doc Swendra raved about what the Huskies had seen out of their new starting catcher.
One trait caught his eye immediately.
 
“Great leadership. That’s what we expect out of our fifth-year seniors, that leadership, but he has it. It looks like, even the younger guys look up to him. You know, when you bring in a guy for one year like that sometimes you kind of wonder if they’re going to be able to fit in with the group of guys that are already there. He had no problem getting involved and getting to be friends with our guys. It didn’t take that long at all. First thing that comes to my mind is that leadership, he comes in with that mentality that ‘This is what we’re going to do to get the job done,’ and everybody respects that. As far as his game, you know, he’s a solid hitter. He can certainly hit the ball. When you’re playing big-time Division I and you can hit .280, .290; 11, 12 doubles, you know he can certainly produce at the Division II level. And that’s great for us. Defensively, he’s a great defensive blocking catcher. Strong arm, all the way around we know we got ourselves a pretty good ballplayer.” said Swendra.
 
Locked in and ready to help lead the St. Cloud State Huskies into a 2019 season full of promise and expectations, Toran Shahidi knows exactly what he’s here to do.
 
“We’re not here to get participation trophies and all that. We’re here to win a National Title. That takes grown men doing grown men things. On a field. With a ball. And a bat. And throwing it by people. And hitting it over the wall. We’re going to win games here, and I believe that this is the best team I’ve been a part of in a while, with a great group of guys that truly love each other. I’m so excited to be a part of this, that these guys have accepted me, and Coach Dolan has given me this chance to come in and finish off my college career like this. It’s a dream come true.”
 
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