by Duane Cochran for FightingFalcons.com
A lot of college athletes talk about being team players.
Fairmont State's Jeff Fansler epitomizes it and has done so in each of his four seasons in a Falcon baseball uniform.
Fansler's story is a unique one to say the least. Pressed into action as a true freshman because of an injury, Fansler played in 38 games his first year in the ranks of college baseball and made 34 starts behind the plate as the Falcons' catcher.
“Jeff definitely had a trying year as a freshman,” said FSU coach George Yanchak. “We had four catchers that year, three of whom were freshman, and after our starter got hurt Jeff got forced into action because he was pretty much the only one who could catch, throw and hit. He caught something like 38 games for us going back-to-back in a lot of doubleheaders and physically it took its toll on him. He did a nice job given the circumstances, but it was hard on him.”
“My freshman year was a year I'll never forget,” said Fansler with a laugh. “That season took a lot out of me physically and mentally. I went from playing a 22-game high school schedule to a college schedule where we played four, five or six times a week and I ended up catching somewhere around 40 games that year.
“It was really taxing on my knees and joints, not to mention how much more mentally demanding the game is on the college level. My head, at times, was spinning out there. I was thrown in the fire so to speak, but you know I really learned so much from that season which has really helped me to mature and grow as a player.”
Fansler batted .207 as a true freshman with 14 runs scored and 10 RBI. The next two seasons he was relegated to a backup role when junior catcher Shaun Vernesoni joined the team in 2011. Fansler played in 19 games, making 11 starts as a sophomore and appeared in 23 games with 18 starts as a junior.
“Shaun was not only a great friend to me, but one heck of a mentor and coach,” said Fansler. “I looked up to him a lot, not only for the way he handled himself, but the way he handled our pitching staff. I really learned a lot about pitch calling from him. I learned how to handle starters and pitchers who come in from the bullpen in late-game situations and what pitches they like and what they're comfortable throwing based on the game situation.
“I really picked his brain and learned what to call, when to call it and why.”
The change in roles for Fansler his sophomore and junior seasons was a bit of a challenge for the youngster after having started so many games as a true freshman. However, he handled it with a wealth of maturity understanding it was in the best interest of the team.
“I had some mixed emotions because I'm a competitor. I wanted to be out there in the fight with the guys and doing all I could to help the team, but I understood my role,” he said. “I understood I needed to take a step back to learn.
“Going from early in my sophomore year when Shaun came in until now the knowledge I've gained and my understanding of the game is completely different. I really took major leaps in those areas the past two seasons. I always understood how to do things, but I really never knew why. Now I know why. When I wasn't playing a lot, especially as a sophomore, it forced me to become a student of the game and it's paid off.”
Yanchak says the maturity with which Fansler handled his two seasons in a reserve role has really paid dividends for his senior catcher this season.
“I'm thrilled with how much Jeff has grown as a player and that's a credit to him and his work ethic both on and off of the field,” said Yanchak. “When he wasn't catching he kept a chart on every guy and what we threw him. He'd have what we'd throw on an 0-0 count, when we were ahead in the count or when we were behind in the count. He really became a student of the game and I honestly believe that's why he's having the success he's having this season.
“He's a leader for us. He's not real vocal, but he's the guy who our guys see leading us in running, leading us in the weight room and playing with a lot of confidence right now.”
Heading into a big four-game WVIAC series this weekend against West Liberty University at West Virginia University's Hawley Field the Falcons are 11-13 overall and 7-7 in the league and have won seven of their last eight games. Fansler, who has appeared in 20 games this year for the Falcons with 18 starts, leads the team in batting with a .373 average and is second in RBI (17) and third in doubles (5).
“It's really great to see Jeff having a good year for us,” said FSU senior pitcher Tyler Kincaid. “His work ethic has always been good since day one here so I wouldn't say he worked any harder heading into this year. He's always been very good defensively as a catcher, but I'm happy seeing things come together for him offensively.
“He's got power and he's moved up in our lineup and has gotten several big hits for us this year in key situations. He's really stepped up and we count on him a lot. As a pitcher and catcher we have a great relationship with one another. I have a lot of confidence in him. We're always on the same page and he just gives me a lot of confidence when I'm out there on the mound.”
Fansler says his offensive success this year is directly related to the work he puts in during practice and on his own.
“It's not so much what you do on the field, but what you do off of it that leads to success in games,” he said. “It's understanding what teams are trying to do against you and adjusting to it. You take all of that and implement in during batting practice in the cage and then you take it to the field with you. For me it's really paying off. I'm seeing the ball very well this year.”
Fansler and his twin brother Jonathan came to FSU from Pinnacle, N.C. They both starred at West Stokes High School where former Falcon pitcher Eric Lickfield was their assistant coach and helped them connect with Fairmont State.
Jeff is majoring in electrical engineering and will graduate in December.
“My life pretty much revolves around school and baseball,” said Fansler. “I don't have time for extra curricular activities. The hardest thing I've had to learn in college being an athlete is time management. That was a real struggle for me my freshman year. Now, I'm a lot better at it.
“To be successful in both areas you really have to learn to manage your time and put the work in both in the classroom and on the field. Fortunately, I've been able to do that and its paying dividends for me now in both areas.”