BATON ROUGE, La. — Rick Vanderhook, a Cal State Fullerton assistant coach, remembers the days when Aaron Rowand was a freshman outfielder.
"We would tell him he needed a road map when he was in the outfield," said Vanderhook, laughing. "We'd kid him and say, 'You get the Thomas Guide this week.' "
It was the coaches' way of reminding the rookie he needed to get a better jump on fly balls.
But Rowand has come a long way since then.
He had never played in the outfield before joining the Titans. He was a third baseman at Glendora High, and didn't play much as a freshman at Fullerton.
It was difficult to get much opportunity at the time, however, with an outfield of Mark Kotsay, Jeremy Giambi and Steve Chatham.
That changed quickly last season with Kotsay and Giambi gone.
Rowand took over for Giambi in right as a sophomore and has played regularly since. He batted .347 with seven home runs and 43 runs batted a year ago, and his numbers have gotten better this season.
Going into today's NCAA regional in Baton Rouge, Rowand is batting .376, leads his team in RBIs (61) and shares the lead in homers (13).
"The key for Aaron has been developing consistency," Titan Coach George Horton said. "He's always been capable of the special at-bat, but he's gotten away from the negative side of it a lot more."
Rowand remembers that a couple of times last season Horton threatened to bench him if he didn't stop swinging at bad pitches.
"But it seemed like every time he said that I'd got out and get three hits," Rowand said. "But I knew it was something I needed to work on, and I'm a more disciplined hitter now."
Rowand says he's also stronger physically this season, thanks to a conditioning program he began last summer when he was playing for Brewster (Mass.) in the Cape Cod League.
Rowand and one of his Brewster teammates would get up at 6 a.m. six days a week to work out. "I got a lot bigger this summer because of that," he said. "I went from 180 to around 215 pounds."
It appears to have given him more power. His slugging percentage is a team-high .706, up from .498 last season. He has 25 doubles and four triples this year.
Rowand also has become a more complete player, according to Vanderhook.
"He's very good now defensively, and he has a great arm," Vanderhook said. "He has good speed, and he has been able to get more extra-base hits because of that. The only negative now is that he still tries to muscle some balls up, rather than hitting them where they're pitched. But he's matured a lot and improved in every aspect of the game."
Rowand says he's equally pleased with his improvement in the mental side of the game.
"I've learned more about baseball at Fullerton than I ever thought I could," Rowand said. "Coach Horton and Coach Vanderhook have really helped me a lot. Coach Horton showed a lot of confidence in me when he took over. I got into a rut during my freshman year, and I couldn't seem to get out of it. I know Coach [Augie] Garrido got down on me then."
Horton said it has been a matter of Rowand learning to deal with his frustration.
"It was something he had never had to handle because he had always been so successful," Horton said. "And one bad at-bat seemed to lead to another that season."
Rowand says two of his former teammates, Skip Kiil and Scott Seal, also helped him mature as a player.
"They both sort of took me under their wing, and they taught me a lot about work ethic," he said. "Even though neither one played all the time, they were always working hard and were ready."
Rowand says he's optimistic the Titans will do well in the playoffs.
"That means a lot to me since this will be my last year," Rowand said. "Team honors mean a lot more to me than individual honors do anyway."
Rowand was chosen to Baseball America's preseason All-American second team, and was recently a Big West Conference first-team selection.
He also has shown good potential to the major league scouts.
"I believe he'll go in the top three rounds of the draft," Vanderhook said. "And I think he'll hit even better with the wood bat. He's hit well the last two summers with wood in the Cape Cod League. He has above-average bat speed, and that helps him."
Rowand is enthusiastic about an approaching pro career, but he says it's more important to end this season with a strong showing.
"I think the older guys appreciate how important this week is," Rowand said. "I know I'm really going to miss it at Fullerton."