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Baseball: Kjerstad fitting in perfectly for UL

Dex Kjerstad 
Dex Kjerstad

UL at UALRWHERE: Gary Hogan Field, Little Rock.
WHEN: 6 tonight, 4 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday.
RECORDS: UALR 15-16, 4-8; UL 22-10, 6-6

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, April 12, 2013

When the call came in, Dex Kjerstad knew immediately.

Coach Matt Deggs was on the line.

It said so right on the phone, because Kjerstad never did delete the number from when Deggs recruited him the first time around.

That would be when Deggs was an assistant coach at Texas A&M – and when Kjerstad signed instead with Texas.

“I saw it was, ‘Coach Deggs,’ and was like, ‘What?’ ” Kjerstad said. “I kind of smiled for a second, I answered it, and now I’m here.”

“Here” would be UL, where Deggs works now as an assistant and where Kjerstad is one of the top hitters the 22-10 Cajuns have going.

Kjerstad has multiple-hit outings in 10 of UL’s last 13 full games, including a string of six straight from March 19 through March 29.

Heading into a three-game Sun Belt Conference weekend series at Arkansas-Little Rock that opens tonight, the right-fielder leads the club with 13 multi-hit games and 41 base hits.

Hitting .410 (25-of-61) since March 19, his season average of .347 ranks third among Cajun regulars behind only Tyler Girouard’s .409 and Ryan Leonards’ .383.

“He plays the game the right way,” Deggs said of Kjerstad, a product of Randall High in Amarillo, Texas. “He plays hard. A great kid on and off the field.”

And one UL has chiefly because of connections with Deggs, who joined the Cajuns’ staff last March and is its recruiting coordinator in addition to coaching hitters and working the third-base box.

The first around, saying no to Deggs wasn’t easy.

“Tough decision,” Kjerstad said of opting for Texas.

Yet even after Kjerstad chose the Longhorns, Deggs kept up with his career – and knew he had transferred to Howard County (Texas) Junior College.

So when UL started scouring the juco ranks after last season, Deggs knew right where to turn.

“I still had his number in my phone (too),” he said.

“When you form that bond in the recruiting process, and you’re recruiting a good kid and a good family, it’s hard to root against him,” Deggs added. “You want to see him succeed. And then to find out he’s available – of course you’d love to have him.”

Kjerstad broke his wrist early in the spring of his 2011 freshman season at Texas, and wound up missing nine weeks.

He appeared in five games on a 49-win team, but was limited mostly to pinch-running.

The fit just wasn’t right, so he left with no real plan other than hoping to eventually land at another four-year program.

“I decided it’s probably gonna be best for me to move on,” Kjerstad said. “I just went (to Howard), worked hard, played hard.”

Wichita State and a few other teams showed interest.

But once Deggs phoned – after a thumbs-up from coaches he knew on the staffs at both Howard and Texas – Kjerstad’s call was easy.

“I told him, ‘This is Coach Deggs.’ He said, ‘Hey,’ ” Deggs said. “I said, ‘I want you to be a Ragin’ Cajun ’ – and we struck it up like we never left off.”

No awkward silence on the other end, no need to apologize for the earlier rebuff.

Just like that, he was a Cajun – even if he really wasn’t sure what one was before the phone rang.

They had a need, Kjerstad was seeking a new home. This time, the decision was simple.

“We were blessed he was still available,” Deggs said. “He was a guy I really went after hard when I was at A&M, and we formed a good, positive relationship.

“I always thought he would fit in with what we like to do. He’s a strength-and-speed guy that fits in perfect to our style of offense.”

The Cajuns’ leadoff hitter in 27 of his 30 appearances, Kjerstad also has five home runs this season – including three in UL’s last two-and-a-half games.

Two came in a Sun Belt game last Sunday vs. Troy, the other in the first inning of a non-conference game Wednesday night at Northwestern State that was postponed by rain. It will resume this coming Wednesday night with UL up 3-0 in the fourth inning.

“You can see, when you watch him play, he’s a great athlete,” Cajuns head coach Tony Robichaux said. “He can run, he can throw, he can hit, he can hit for power.”

That’s just what the Cajuns wanted when they wound up bringing in four juco transfers from out-of-state, part of what made Deggs’ pitch of UL easy for Kjerjstad to buy.

“That was big,” he said of the Cajuns’ approach after a 23-30 season in 2012. “They said, ‘We’re gonna put together a great team and go win some games.’ They didn’t talk about, ‘This is gonna be a rebuilding year, blah, blah blah.’ They said we’re gonna hit the ground running.”

They’ve done just that a push from the four out-of-state jucos, each one largely living up to expectations.

Ryan Wilson began as an outfielder/pitcher, and has emerged as UL’s Friday-night starter. Seth Harrison plays the outfield, DHs and has become one the Cajuns’ two closers. Caleb Adams has team-high seven homers.

Then there’s Kjerstad, who some suspect might just wind up with a lengthy career beyond college.

“His better playing days are in front of him, still,” Deggs said. “He’s a guy that’s probably not gonna reach his full potential until he’s 25, 26 years old.

“He’s raw in some spots. But the one thing he brings every day is a tremendous work ethic.

“He shows up to punch a time clock to get better, and that’s what it takes,” Deggs added. “It’s hard to find guys that have his talent that show up to punch a time clock every day.”

Yet sometimes they’re only a call away.