Former Portland Panther baseball standout Kemper Dixon plans on taking full advantage of the NAIA’s ruling to grant seniors an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic that put a screeching halt to life this past March.
After signing with Cumberland University in 2016, Dixon has spent the last four years going through the typical ups and downs that come with playing ball at the college level.
From playing junior varsity, then tearing his hamstring before being called up to varsity, to hitting a home run in his second at-bat his senior year, he has remained loyal to the game that he loves. His dedication was finally starting to pay off, that is until the coronavirus had other plans. Dixon’s approach to the canceled season is a blessing in disguise, saying the time away was a chance for reflection not only for himself but Cumberland Athletics as a whole.
“Coach (Woody) Hunt called us in and told us we were suspended until April 1,” Dixon recalled on hearing the news of a canceled season. “Later that week, we got another message from him saying that our season was canceled.”
“I think it was a good thing for us this year because I do not believe all of our heads were in it for good,” he continued. “A lot of those players that were not necessarily in it are either not coming back or have graduated. This (pandemic) was a good thing for CU to have a break and reevaluate everything and come back next year with a new frame of mind. I think even 20 some odd games into the season; you could see some guys were tired of playing.”
This was not the first time Dixon’s season has been cut short during his time at CU or the first time he had faced adversity.
After signing with CU as a catcher out of high school, Dixon played his first fall of junior varsity ball behind the plate, and after a solid season, he was ready to make the jump to varsity for the spring semester. Life had other plans.
Playing an intra-squad scrimmage, Dixon roped a shot to the outfield, and as he was rounding second, he felt something in his hamstring. A grade two tear was not severe, but it was enough to end his season.
“The worst part was not getting moved up to varsity because that was a big thing for me, and I was excited about it,” he said. “Then, I go and get hurt, but it was a good learning process for me. I learned that not everything in life is going to be kosher. I would not change that because it helped me understand that athletics is not always at the top of everything. It knocked me down a little bit and humbled me.”
Coming back for his sophomore season, Cumberland decided it would be best for Dixon to redshirt the season and move to the outfield. The position change was significant for him. He was always behind the plate; it took some getting used to, and in some ways, he still is trying to adjust, but Dixon accepted the new role of playing in the outfield and wanted to be the very best at it.
“The biggest adjustment for me was not getting the ball every single time,” he said. “Outfield is slow-moving, but as a catcher, you are right there in action, and there is never a dull moment. Sometimes in the outfield, you can go two, three innings without the ball. Some games an entire game will pass without getting the ball hit your way.”
What Dixon grew to find out was that his body thanked him for the move.
“My knees developed a strong calcium deposit at the knee caps that I know will help me in the coming years,” he said. “I realized I was not nearly as tired after every game, especially after a doubleheader.”
Not only did Dixon have to get used to not being in action every play, but he also had to change his mechanics and flexibility.
“That was the difficult part of the whole thing,” he said. “We had this coach, Brady North, that I did not like at the beginning because he stayed on me the whole time. I also do not think he liked me coming from catcher, so he was extra hard on me. However, as we progressed, he helped me a lot, and we grew to like each other. He helped me get more flexible and stronger in my shoulders and upper body. We were close, and when he left this past year to take another job, I was upset about it.”
Dixon described his junior campaign as a process, playing only sparingly, but his senior year, he was hopeful his hard work would pay off. The team played around 20 games, and Dixon got four at-bats, hitting a home run in his second appearance at the plate.
His senior year may have ended prematurely, but the opportunity to sit back and reflect on the game has given him time to think about what he wants out of his final year of eligibility.
“I am going to talk to coach Hunt about moving back to catching,” he said. “Catching is my bread and butter; what I am good at. I feel like I missed out a little bit by trying to fit into a spot my shoulder and arm does not allow. I do not have a strong arm; in fact, it is one of the weaker parts of my game. I want to have a sit down with him and see if he can try me back at catching, but if he does not like it, I will gladly go back to the outfield.”
Dixon’s goal is simple for his last year playing the game that he grew up loving: winning. Whatever the cost, he is willing to give up the personal experience for team success.
“I want to best the best on the field. I want to win games, and I do not care how we do it. If it is behind the plate or in the outfield, I want to win.”
Dixon will return in the fall to finish his Bachelor’s Degree in Sports and Exercise Science with plans of becoming a strength and condition coach. He will graduate in December before coming back the Spring semester to earn his Masters Degree with a minor in Education. Following his plans of receiving his Masters, Dixon says he will get a technical degree for a trade to fall back on.