UW outfielder Kyle Conley slims down, hits home runs
Appearances can deceive when it comes to Washington outfielder Kyle Conley. Watching him walk through campus now at a slender 205 pounds...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Appearances can deceive when it comes to Washington outfielder Kyle Conley.
Watching him walk through campus now at a slender 205 pounds, you might never guess that a few years ago he was a burly Richland High School defensive lineman. Against rival Pasco High, he went against Ryan Tolar, now a starting guard for the UW football team.
"He pretty much just bear-hugged me," said Conley, who then weighed roughly 230 pounds. "Getting pancaked four times in a row wasn't real encouraging."
And watching Conley slug six homers in his past seven games, sparking a Huskies surge that has UW in contention for an NCAA tournament berth, you might never guess that a year ago he had fleeting worries he might never swing a bat again.
Conley, who has been named Pac-10 player of the week the past two weeks and has 16 homers for the season, played in just 18 games last year after tearing his labrum (left shoulder) on a checked swing.
"Very unusual," said UW coach Ken Knutson, adding the only other occurrence he has heard of such an injury came in 1996 to David Justice of the Atlanta Braves.
The right-handed Conley said he tried to hold up on a high fastball when he felt the shoulder, which he once injured playing high school football, go.
After the surgery, when he couldn't raise his arm, he said he thought there would be no way he'd be able to swing a bat again.
But within four months he had full range of motion, and by the end of UW's fall season he felt good as new.
Better, in fact. When he returned, he said he was forced to "restructure" his swing. He said that's why he hits to all fields now, instead of pulling the ball so much.
"He was more upright before," Knutson said.
And taking part in a summer rehab program with other injured UW players, as well as some playing professionally, Conley shed the last of some of the extra weight from his high school football playing days. He thinks he's faster and more athletic than before the injury.
Conley hit only four homers his first two seasons for the Huskies (he ended up redshirting last year and is still a sophomore), none last season. Combine that with the fact that he was a three-sport athlete at Richland and didn't take part in a lot of big amateur baseball tournaments that are heavily-scouted and Conley has been flying, in the words of Knutson, "a little under the radar."
As has a lot of this team, which was picked last in the Pac-10 preseason coaches poll. But the emergence of Conley is a big reason UW has surpassed expectations. After winning two of three last weekend against Washington State, the Huskies are 31-17 overall and 10-8 and alone in third place in the Pac-10. The Huskies face a critical three-game series this weekend at Pac-10 leader Arizona State.
Conley, hitting .342, has hit 12 homers in UW's past 19 games, two coming Sunday in a 5-1 win over WSU when he hit two-run shots with two outs in the first and third innings.
Along with a better swing and improved physique, Conley also said the injury and resulting layoff have led to a more aggressive attitude.
"I'm up there now thinking, 'What do I have to lose?' " he said. "[Last year] I didn't even know if I'd be able to swing again. So I'm going to work hard and be aggressive and not hold anything back. If you hit it, you hit it. If you don't, you don't, but at least you tried. Be super, crazy aggressive, but under control."
His 16 homers are already tied for fifth on UW's all-time season list (the record is 22 by Chad Boudon in 2003) and tied for second this season in the Pac-10.
Knutson isn't really surprised, saying Conley "always had crazy power" during his days at Richland, where he helped lead the Bombers to the 2005 4A state title along with current UW teammate Tyler Cheney, a pitcher.
Athletics run in the Conley family. His father, Steve, attended Washington State, where he played football, though without lettering. And his grandfather, Glen, lettered three years as a tackle at UW from 1939 to 1941, playing in the East-West Shrine Game in 1942.
Conley said he often listened to his grandfather "tell me stories about UW and football" that got him intrigued about the Huskies. So he was easily sold after a recruiting trip in 2004 that included the first plane ride of his life and a front-row seat at a UW-UCLA football game. He committed shortly after.
Even then he was something of a sleeper, however. He'd gotten home near midnight from a road football game the night before, then left at 5 a.m. on a Saturday for UW.
"I fell asleep at halftime," he said with a laugh. "It was fun, though."
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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