COLUMBIA — On a humid Monday with dark storm clouds looming in the distance, the past and future of Missouri baseball stands on a practice field at Rock Bridge High School. The present — Rock Bridge's past — is five minutes up the road at Taylor Stadium.
Bruins head coach Justin Towe and assistants Kelly Fick and Andrew Mueller watch the team go through stretches then work on rundown drills. Among the players is Connor Brumfield, a speedy, left-handed-hitting outfielder with a slim, wiry frame and a shock of blond hair that often flops down the front of his face.
When: 6 p.m. Thursday, 6 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: Taylor Stadium
Radio: KTGR 103.1 FM, 1580 AM
TV: Cox Cable on Friday and Saturday
Towe, Fick and Mueller all played at Missouri under coach Tim Jamieson, a Rock Bridge alumnus himself. Current Tigers pitchers John Miles and Ryan Phillips played for the Bruins under Towe. And Brumfield, a junior, verbally committed to Missouri this past winter.
The two programs are not only close in distance but also close in the talent and experience they share.
"We're always kind of keeping an eye out on scores, how they’re doing, what their competition is coming up," Towe said of the connection between the two schools. "It's kind of a little bit of a family there."
The coaches followed similar paths to their positions at Rock Bridge. Towe and Fick wanted to stay around the game, but didn't have strong professional prospects. They both decided to become coaches and teachers and ended up staying in town.
Towe started at Rock Bridge as an assistant under former baseball coach Terry Whitney and worked there for nine years before becoming head coach in 2007. Fick met Towe through Erik Darkow, a Rock Bridge graduate and former Missouri pitcher, and began coaching in the summer of 2011.
Mueller's case was a bit different. He had no desire to get into coaching after graduating college. He didn't see his introverted personality as a match for coaching, which stereotypically involves type-A, ambitious personalities.
But Mueller enjoyed the camaraderie that came with being a part of the team. He was substitute teaching at Rock Bridge when Towe approached him about a job on the staff in 2012. Mueller accepted and is currently in his third year with the team. He also coaches softball and basketball.
The coaches' relationship with Missouri gave them more than just on-field experience and an alma mater.
They implement strategies they learned during their time with the Tigers in their coaching of the Bruins. For example, Fick employs the "A3P" (attack in three pitches) principle, which tasks pitchers with completing an at-bat in three pitches. He also places a priority on mental conditioning and toughness, which he also credits to his time at Missouri.
The fact that Missouri and Rock Bridge share a city has certainly helped bring the coaches together. And distance, or the lack thereof, has been an even bigger factor in attracting local players.
"If you grow up in this area, you grow up a die-hard Mizzou fan, and it's the coolest thing to get to play for that university," Fick said.
That was the case for Brumfield, who remembers throwing out the first pitch at a Missouri game when he was3 years old and coming to games ever since.
"I've been pretty much in the shadows of Taylor Stadium my whole life," he said.
As soon as playing baseball in college became a realistic possibility, he thought about Missouri. He struck up a relationship with the Tigers' coaches by attending camps and tournaments.
"They're like 'Hey, there's a camp, can you make it?' I'm like 'Yeah, I can wake up 30 minutes before,'" Brumfield said.
It was shortly after one of those camps last winter that an offer came. It was the first one Brumfield received, and he immediately accepted.
Phillips, who is currently a reliever for the Tigers, helped Rock Bridge to the state semifinals as a freshman and earned All-District honors all four years he played at Rock Bridge (2009-12). His accolades and numbers in high school drew attention from college coaches.
Despite currently being sidelined by a bicep injury, Miles has been one of the Tigers' main starters this year. But he filled out his frame late, so he had a low profile for much of his high school career.
Heading into his senior year, though, he started throwing about 90 mph. That was enough for Missouri assistant coach Kerrick Jackson to take interest.
The close distance between Miles and Missouri also helped the recruiting process move along smoothly. He could squeeze throwing sessions at Missouri around basketball practice at Rock Bridge without having to plan travel.
From Jackson's point of view, however, the two schools being so close together is more beneficial to players than it is to coaches.
Jackson doesn't necessarily spend more time at Columbia-area games because they're close — he still has to make the rounds in Kansas City, St. Louis and other cities. If there's a talented player in his proverbial backyard, though, he'll make a run at him, but he doesn't necessarily cover those areas more thoroughly.
Columbia prospects, on the other hand, can get to camps and tournaments easily and put themselves in front of Missouri's coaches.
"When you're dealing with kids that are local, it does go a little bit faster than the kids that are out," Jackson said. "Just because, again, the proximity allows them to have a closer relationship."
Those factors certainly helped Miles, Phillips and Brumfield. But luck and coincidence played a role as well. Missouri is a Division I school that plays in the Southeastern Conference, generally accepted as the best college baseball conference in the country. To play for the Tigers, you first have to be really, really good.
The Bruins have had those sorts of players in recent years.
"I think every young kid that plays baseball here in Columbia, they want to play at Missouri," Towe said. "But the reality of that situation is that very few of them will be able to actually make it to that level. And now that they're in the SEC, I think that number is even smaller."
Supervising editor is Sasu Siegelbaum.