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With two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, UC Santa Barbara head coach Andrew Checketts motioned toward the away bullpen at Baggett Stadium. Into the game came reliever Dillon Tate, a hard-thrower who struck out Cal Poly’s senior catcher Chris Hoo the previous night to secure the save and a 1-0 win for UC Santa Barbara.
With the bases loaded and the score tied at 7, Hoo stepped into the batter’s box hoping to create a different result than the previous night’s — a result that is already a foregone conclusion in the catcher’s mind.
“I just honestly thought I was going to win the game,” Hoo said. “I told (Mark) Mathias, who was hitting behind me, ‘Dude, you are not getting up right now, I am going to win this game, he is not going to get me again.’”
Hoo smacked a game-winning single as chants of “HOOOOO” from the sold-out home crowd as he ran up the first baseline. The moment was a special one for the senior, one of many in a memorable season for the Mustangs, which are now ranked in the top 10 nationally in most major polls.
But who is Hoo? The senior signal-caller has seemingly come out of nowhere to become, as his brother and teammate Michael Hoo said, “The heart and soul of the team, and the best catcher on the West Coast.”
Not only can the catcher — who has sported a batting average north of .300 while batting out of the ninth spot in the lineup for much of this season — provide a hit when the Mustangs need it most, he also guides a pitching staff that has shut down the strongest offenses the Big West Conference has had to offer.
It started in 2009, when the then-junior in high school was surveying the collegiate athletics landscape for schools that might be interested. It came as a relief when Cal Poly, the school his older brother Michael had already committed to, reached out to Hoo in an effort to lure him to the Central Coast. His decision was cemented by the school’s strong academic reputation.
“This is the tightest group I have ever been around — seniors are hanging out with freshmen,” Hoo said. “Over the years, I have noticed the change, and this year’s team is special.”
As a freshman, Hoo played in 31 games and committed only one error. As a catcher, he displays exceptional defense both with his lethal arm and his ability to provide a stable backstop for the occasional ball in the dirt. But while his defense was more than solid, Hoo struggled to adjust to the elite pitching the Cal Poly baseball team faces throughout its regular season schedule. His average ended up at .209.
His sophomore season was a breakout year for Hoo. He nabbed first-team All-Big West Conference honors after hitting .377 in the last six weeks of the season while only committing five errors in 46 starts. But after a lukewarm junior season in which he split catching duties with Elliot Stewart, who is now the Director of Baseball Operations, Hoo was out to prove himself in his final season at Cal Poly.
“He had a down year last year,” Michael said. “He struggled a lot, he was really disappointed in the way that he played last year, and he took that upon himself to work hard in the offseason.”
With the end of last year’s season still fresh in his mind — the team squandered a late lead in the Los Angeles Regional Tournament against eventual national champion UCLA — he knows his days donning a Cal Poly uniform are numbered. Hoo is poised to lead the Mustangs to the postseason for the second straight year.
“It was a big learning experience,” Hoo said. “For a lot of these guys, it was our first time in regionals and it was such an awesome experience. We are confident that we could do well, because we were in every game against UCLA. After that happened, we found our identity … We learned that we were better than them.”
While the team’s “new identity” has served them well in a season with an increasing amount of national scrutiny, Hoo has been successful in adapting to his new role as an anchor for both the defense and the offense. His crucial dual role is the reason head coach Larry Lee said, “He is the most valuable player on the team. He is the one player that if you take out of our lineup, it would most affect us.”
“(Chris) is the best defensive catcher I have had since I have been coaching,” Lee said. “Great receiver, great blocker, accurate thrower, works well with our pitchers, gives us coaches valuable information on opposing hitters in addition to being the hitter with the most meaningful RBIs for the team this season.”
But instead of assuming the identity of a defense-first, offense-second catcher, Hoo has bloomed into an accomplished hitter who can spray the ball to both fields and “loves” hitting in clutch situations.
“As a kid, I always wanted to be in those tough situations,” he said. “When I am out here now and it’s the same situation in real life, it is such an awesome thing, but you still have to keep it simple.”