Photo of Malek Bolin (on left) by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
BELTON- The UMHB baseball program that Malek Bolin entered prior to the 2018 season does not look nearly the same five years later.
For the fifth-year senior, nobody from his freshman class remains on the roster. A new coaching staff, led by Mike Stawski, came from Concordia-Chicago in 2020. And for the first time in his collegiate career, the Fort Worth native enters the final weekend of the regular season as the conference leader in home runs.
The success, both for him personally and the team as a whole, made coming back for an extra season, granted to him by Covid-19, an easy decision to make. Four years ago, he admits he might not have taken advantage of the additional eligibility. But his engineering degree plan required an extra semester, and the program was on the rise.
“I wanted everything out of my college experience,” Bolin said. “When Covid cut the 2020 season short, I had looked at my degree plan as an engineering major, which is long to begin with, and knew I would have to come back for an extra semester.”
Building on the program’s first tournament appearance since 2017 and first postseason win since 2014 last season, the Cru has experience and a group of notable wins-victories over ASC powers ETBU and UTD, as well as Top 25 wins over Texas Lutheran and Trinity. Both of those things prove vital when entering a three-day, double-elimination tournament that is likely to send all but one team home for the rest of the summer.
“This year, we’re trying to get through this weekend first, because we have work to do,” Bolin said. “And then go into [the ASC Tournament] next weekend. We have to take it one game at a time. It doesn’t matter who is on the other side. We have to play our game and we’ll be fine.”
He added that UMHB, based on its past struggles in terms of wins and losses, was seen as an underdog entering last year’s tournament. Some still see the Cru that way. But for a team that is only beginning to scratch the surface, the Crusaders will head into next weekend knowing that a string of wins could land them in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think a lot of people still think of us as the underdog against some of the guys like ETBU and UTD,” Bolin added. “But when you have a situation like that, it’s literally anybody’s game because everything is based on one game, not the whole weekend.”
Bolin knows what it is like to be undervalued. It is hard to imagine the power-hitting first baseman who now leads the ASC in home runs, with 13, holding just two offers coming out of Fort Worth’s Chisholm Trail High School. But that was his situation. His first choice was to play at D-II Colorado School of Mines. An engineering school, it lined up with his desired major, but the high admission standards of the university forced him to re-evaluate (It should be noted Bolin, who prides himself on academics, was an Academic All-State honoree and member of National Honor Society coming out of high school. At UMHB, he has been named Academic All-ASC twice). It came down to Austin College and UMHB, two lone star state D-III programs. There was no comparison.
“There were two options: a place that didn’t feel like home, or UMHB, where the coaching staff treated me like one of their own,” Bolin said of being recruited by former head coach Ben Shipp and assistant coach Nate Shipp. “It was an easy decision at that point.”
It proved to be the perfect fit. Once adjusted to the college course schedule and the pitching he faced on a weekly basis, Bolin ended up as a key contributor in his freshman season, hitting .318 with five homers in 30 games. An up-and-down 2019 campaign was followed by the hiring of Stawski, which brought a position change for the then-third baseman.
“My senior year of high school I played first base a little bit, but I came to UMHB to play third base,” Bolin recalls. “Most of my freshman and sophomore year I was playing third base, but when Stawski and his staff came in, they said, ‘You’re not playing third base.’ I had to transition to playing first base and focusing more on being an offensive threat.”
He remembers his high school career playing out with few home-run hitting moments. A double here or there was about all the extra-base hitting he did. But where he lacked power, he gained an innate knowledge of the “small ball” style of play that has helped turn UMHB around in a short time. Characterized by bunts, hit-and-run calls and aggressive baserunning,
“In high school, I would get my doubles here and there, but it was more of the small ball play that Stawski talks about,” Bolin said of his playing style coming to Belton.
That might surprise some, especially those who have watched the senior single-handedly take down school records in each of the last three weekends. Against Concordia in mid-April, he broke the program record for career home runs, swatting his 28th as part of a 24-7 rout of the Tornadoes. A week later at LeTourneau, his solo homer in game three earned him the title of single-season home run record holder, with 13. And last weekend in Alpine, Bolin’s sixth-inning RBI double broke the previous single-season record for RBIs in a season (48).
“I’ve just been lucky this year hitting a few out,” Bolin said when asked if any change in his plate approach has given way to a dominant offensive season. “I try to focus on staying with the same approach as anybody in the lineup.”
Those home runs have been needed as UMHB moved to 21-16 and fourth in the conference following last weekend’s series win at Sul Ross State. But so has Bolin’s leadership. As one of the few players still on the roster who have seen the rebuild through, his maturity and guidance for the younger players has been exceptional.
“He’s solidified the middle of the order, and it has allowed the guys around him to hit with calmness and ease,” Stawski said of Bolin. “I think that’s been the most important part of his responsibility as the “old guy” in the lineup. He has said, ‘I’ll take the brunt of this. You guys just handle your business and I’ll take the load.’ He has. You can see it in his numbers.”
Bolin has enjoyed this season to its fullest. But he is also aware that when he celebrates senior day on Saturday in the Cru’s final regular season games of the year, it will be his last time to play in Belton. That is why he holds himself to a high standard. It is why he strives for perfection. He might be in the midst of his best, and final year at UMHB, but he believes there is plenty more in store for the program in the years to come.
“I just hope that these guys do what’s right,” Bolin said of the impact he hopes to leave. “That’s what Stawski talks about, having fun and doing things the right way. Once they do that, the sky’s the limit for this program. As the years go by the recruiting classes get better and better. If they just play hard and do the right thing, anything is possible.”
Bolin and the Cru battle Howard Payne in the regular season finales this weekend in Belton. Game one is Friday night at 6 p.m., followed by Saturday’s noon doubleheader.