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Spartans second baseman Dan Durkin leading by example

Matt Charboneau The Detroit News

East Lansing – Dan Durkin never really saw it coming.

As he prepared to play his senior season after earning All-Big Ten honors last year at second base for the Spartans, the only thing on his mind was competing for a conference championship and getting his team back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012.

But when the team held its annual First Pitch Dinner in mid-February, coach Jake Boss Jr. called the native of Tinley Park, Illinois, up to the podium.

It was there he presented Durkin with a No. 9 Michigan State uniform, complete with a capital “C” near the left shoulder.

“It was pretty cool, probably the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me because it was my teammates that went to Coach Boss and wanted it,” Durkin said.

After going without for more than a handful of years, the Spartans had a captain, and it seems, there was never any doubt who it would be.

Boss said he took a page from the football program’s playbook a few years back and created a leadership council — two players from each class to form a group of eight.

It’s that group that Boss meets with on a regular basis to gauge the mindset of the team and get input from the players.

But this year, the players on that group realized there was one true leader and they pushed their coach to make that clear.

“It was around December or January and I had a couple guys come in and say, ‘Listen, we like where we’re at and like what we’re doing but there’s no question who the leader of this team,’ ” Boss said. “They really wanted to make that known by putting the C on the jersey. I said, ‘I’m all for it.’ But it came from them. It wasn’t my idea at all.”

That led to the decision to present him the jersey at the banquet.

“I think he was pretty touched by it; he was pretty moved,” Boss said. “He said it was one the neatest honors he’s ever had.”

It’s not exactly the path it seemed Durkin was on during his first two seasons with the Spartans. That’s not to say he didn’t show any leadership, but he was struggling on the field.

Through his first two seasons, Durkin managed just 91 at-bats, collecting 22 total hits. He appeared in 23 games as a freshman in 2014 and 16 as a sophomore in 2015.

During those two seasons, Boss said they were working hard to change some things in Durkin’s swing. It didn’t go well.

“I think lot of it was our fault,” Boss said. “If we had backed off sooner and kind of told him to be athletic and not worry so much about the fundamental stuff, maybe he would have played a little better early on. But we took a step away and said, ‘Just see the ball and hit it,’ and he turned himself into an All-Big Ten second baseman.”

That transformation came last season as Durkin hit .324 and started all 56 games Michigan State played, driving in 32 runs and hitting six home runs.

“I just got back to what I was doing before I got here and they let me go, like Coach Boss said,” Durkin said. “I wasn’t getting frustrated then I was just trying to find a way to get better.”

It’s paid off as Durkin started this season hitting better than .400 through the first eight games. However, the offensive numbers have been a bit inconsistent since.

But it’s not just been Durkin. The entire team has seen plenty of ups and downs at the plate recently, something Boss knew could be an issue this season. But entering this weekend’s series with Ohio State, the pitching remains solid for the Spartans (19-11, 3-3 Big Ten) and they’ll have their leader to fall back on when trying to grind out wins.

It’s something Durkin relishes.

“I embrace it. I like doing it,” Durkin said. “I feel like I go out there and lead by example and if guys need help I want to be the guy they come to.”

Boss sees Durkin as the perfect guy for it. His struggles early in his career have molded Durkin into the leader he is now, Boss believes. It’s allowed Durkin to be more of a mentor to the young players, something he didn’t have when he arrived on campus.

“Honestly, he’s one of the best leaders I’ve ever had the pleasure of coaching,” Boss said.

As important as Durkin knows his role is, he’s just as focused on closing his college career the way he always hoped.

“Win the Big Ten, that’s all that matters to me,” Durkin said. “Win the Big Ten regular season then bring it over to the tournament and win that. Then get to an (NCAA) regional.

“I don’t know how much longer this team will be playing together but we’re gonna try to take it one game at time and hopefully end up raising a trophy at the end of the year.”