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The opponent’s view: Sophomore catcher McGee battles back from injury to help lead FSU to College World Series

(NOTE: Here is a Florida State baseball story from our Gannett partner, the Tallahassee Democrat, which runs nolesports.com. The Seminoles will take on Arizona in the first round of the College World Series on Friday at 6 p.m. Tucson time.)

Stephen McGee (left) greets Jayce Boyd after scoring a run during a spring training exhibition game against the Philadelphia Phillies. Photo by Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE

By Ira Schoffel
Democrat sports editor

In a college baseball locker room, where every player and coach prides himself on toughness, Stephen McGee has earned a special degree of reverence.

His coaches call him a warrior. His teammates say he’s a workhorse. Practically everyone on the Seminoles’ roster asks at one time or another how he does it; how he plays catcher, the most physically demanding position on the field, nearly every inning of every game.

“What he’s done for us, words can’t describe it,” FSU pitching coach Mike Bell said. “What a warrior. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it.”

But as he sat in Florida State’s dugout late Tuesday morning, preparing for the Seminoles’ final practice at home before departing for the College World Series, McGee appeared fit and fresh.

Yes, he has picked up plenty of bumps and bruises during these 63 consecutive starts. Yes, the physical exertion has caused him to lose weight — he no longer carries 230 pounds on his 6-foot, 3-inch frame.

But after everything McGee has endured just to get to this point, to be Florida State’s starting catcher, no one will ever hear him complain.

“I haven’t felt this good since, I don’t know … 12 years old,” McGee said.

‘Something wasn’t right’

When they arrived at Florida State together three years ago, Devon Travis was thrilled about getting to play college baseball with his childhood friend.

Travis, who had played travel ball with McGee since they were about 12 years old, was penciled in as the Seminoles’ starting second baseman, and McGee was expected to compete for the starting catcher position. But every day at practice in the fall of 2009, Travis would wonder what happened to the player he had seen dominate opponents for so many years.

“I knew what he was capable of doing,” Travis said. “And to be completely honest, I don’t think there was a better catcher in the state — I think he hit over .500 two years in a row in high school. So I knew something wasn’t right with him.

“When he was throwing balls down to second base, I was always asking him, ‘Are you feeling all right?’ And he said, ‘I feel fine. I feel fine.’ I know he was just being a competitor and trying to win that starting job as a freshman.”

What McGee wouldn’t acknowledge then, to his teammates or coaches, was the excruciating pain that radiated through his right shoulder every time he attempted a throw.

“The whole shoulder … it killed,” McGee said. “There were some times I couldn’t even lift my arm after I threw the ball. I was hurting pretty bad. But I was trying to hide it as best as possible. The last thing you want to do is tell your coaches you’re hurt the first week. So I was just trying my hardest just to work on it without really showing I was hurt.”

McGee ended up fighting through that pain as a freshman, playing a bit of catcher and first base, and appeared in 19 games. But when the pain continued into the start of his sophomore year, he and Florida State’s coaches decided it was time for surgery.

Doctors tightened some ligaments, shaved part of the bone and cleaned up some other minor issues. But after months of intense rehabilitation, McGee still didn’t feel good when he entered practice last fall.

“It just didn’t feel like I had it,” McGee said. “I don’t know if I was scared to really try it or what it was, but it just didn’t feel right.”

During winter break, McGee finally had a breakthrough. While spending a few weeks back home in Port St. Lucie, he did everything he could think of to whip his shoulder back into shape. He worked out tirelessly. He threw long tosses. He did countless exercises.

And finally, after he returned to FSU for the spring semester, McGee felt a change.

His velocity had returned. So had his accuracy.

“I felt like I had my arm back, finally,” McGee said.

Toughness prevails

Of all the pleasant surprises on a Florida State baseball team that started the season ranked No. 20 and is now one of eight teams competing for a national championship, McGee might be the biggest.

Not only was he coming off of the shoulder surgery, but the Seminoles also had brought in a hot-shot prospect in high school All-American Mario Amaral. No one would have told McGee at the time, but Florida State’s coaches figured that even if he returned from the surgery, there was a good chance he would end up serving as Amaral’s backup.

McGee wasn’t having it. Once he began to feel normal again, he beat out the highly touted Amaral during preseason practice.

“A lot of baseball is confidence,” McGee said. “And a lot of that confidence comes from how you feel. So if I feel good, if I feel good throwing, I’m going to go out there and play well.”

“He’s mentally tough. He’s physically tough,” FSU coach Mike Martin said of McGee. “We were not planning on him starting. He won the job. And he did it with hard work and toughness.”

That toughness became even more important when Amaral sustained a back injury early in the season and eventually ended up transferring. With no real backup, McGee has missed only a handful of innings.

“You just can’t find guys who can do that,” FSU assistant coach Mike Martin Jr. said. “Not in the state of Florida, especially because of the heat. And you throw in the books, the travel and everything else, there’s probably only a couple of guys in the country who can do that.”

“He’s definitely lost weight, you can tell that,” freshman pitcher Mike Compton said of the wear and tear on McGee’s body. “He’s a workhorse back there. He does everything for us, and people don’t give him the credit that he deserves.”

The only thing McGee hasn’t given the Seminoles thus far is power at the plate. He is batting .243, and the vast majority of his hits have been singles. But Martin believes that is coming back as well, as McGee shakes off the rust from not playing much the past two seasons.

“I see him just a little bit away from being the hitter that people are gonna go, ‘Good gosh, we’ve got to watch out for this guy,’” Martin said.

“There is no telling where we’d be if we didn’t have him,” added Martin Jr. “He’s just a pleasure.”

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