Fast Pitch

How a simple question from his dad landed Cole Percival at UCR.

By Omar Shamout

Freshman pitcher Cole Percival, a former top prospect from Riverside Polytechnic High School and son of head coach Troy Percival ’91, committed to UCR in the summer of 2016 — though he didn’t know it at the time.

Cole had been working on his pitching mechanics at UCR’s Riverside Sports Complex with his dad, a former Angels closer who helped the team win the 2002 World Series title with seven postseason saves, when Troy asked him a seemingly straightforward question.

“Do you want to pitch here?” Cole said his father asked him. Cole’s mother, Michelle, graduated from UCR in 1994, so the school is somewhat of an institution in his family.

“I didn’t quite know what that question meant,” Cole explained over the phone from his hotel room in Fresno in late March as the Highlanders prepared to take on the Fresno State Bulldogs. “I wasn’t sure if the question was, ‘Is this what you want?’”

While Cole said yes, he didn’t discover the finality of his comment until a few months later while riding in the car with his father.

“I said, ‘When do I commit?’”

“’You already did,’” Cole said his father replied.

Initially, Troy thought it might be a good idea for his son to be coached by someone else, having already served as Cole’s coach for years on All-Star and travel ball teams.

“That’s what he had originally wanted,” Cole said. “I didn’t really know what I wanted. I had been on tours at a couple schools and didn’t really know how I felt.”

As it turned out, other college coaches assumed Cole had already committed to UCR well before he did, albeit unwittingly, because of his dad. So they didn’t recruit him as aggressively as father and son thought they might.

When it dawned on Cole that he would be joining the Highlanders, a team he’d cheered on for years, he realized it was what he wanted all along.

“I’m more than elated,” he said. “I know that I’m meant to be here.”

And the team is happy to have him. The 19-year-old right-hander, whose fastballs typically clock in between 92–95 mph, had a 5–2 record and 3.00 ERA as of May 1, the best on the team in both categories.

The Highlanders kicked off Big West play with an 10–10 record, including a big 8–1 win over Big-Ten opponent Nebraska on Feb. 17 in which Cole earned his first college start. He pitched nearly six innings, striking out eight batters and giving up a lone run and hit.

Despite his strong start to the season, Cole said he wasn’t sure how much time he’d be getting on the mound, and he had some doubts about whether or not he could cut it at the NCAA Division I level.

“I was really worried, like, what if my stuff’s not good enough?” Cole said.

But as his father began to plan for the season, it became apparent Cole would begin his college career in the starting rotation.

“‘We don’t have time for any freshman jitters,’” Cole said his father told him.

And there has been nothing jittery about his performances so far.

While you might think that Troy, a four-time Major League Baseball All-Star whose 316 saves for the Angels make him the team’s all-time leader, would strive to be an intimidating figure to his players, that couldn’t be farther from the truth, according to Cole.

“I don’t think any college team has as much fun at practice,” he said. “You never feel like you’re going to be screamed at for doing anything wrong. It’s always been such a comfortable environment.”

But Cole made sure to note that winning a conference title is serious business for the Highlanders.

“We want to bring a Big West championship back to UC Riverside,” he said. “We’ve got a great group of guys to do it this year. Probably the best guys we’ve had since my dad took over. I think it’s especially personal for me, being from Riverside.”