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Standout freshman Benson, pitching coach Kelly reunite at ASU

Cooper Benson said pitching coach Jason Kelly understands his personality. “He knows when to take me seriously and when I'm joking.” (Photo by Alex Weiner/Cronkite News)

TEMPE, Ariz. – Cooper Benson is perhaps Arizona State baseball’s most anticipated freshman.

Coach Tracy Smith said he expects Benson to have an immediate impact, while Baseball America and D1 Baseball both project he will win Pac-12 Freshman of the Year.

That’s a lot of pressure, which is something his pitching coach could be instrumental in alleviating.

So, as Opening Day nears, Benson was asked what he thinks of his new pitching coach Jason Kelly.

“Oh, I’ve known J.K. (Kelly) since I was about 10 years old,” Benson said.

Let’s rewind.

Around a decade ago, Kelly was throwing to a bunch of kids at California Polytechnic State University’s baseball camp.

Benson, from San Luis Obispo, was one of those campers.

Kelly pitched and later became a coach at Cal Poly, where Larry Lee was the head coach.

Benson’s best friend was Brooks Lee, Larry’s son. Therefore, Benson was around Cal Poly a lot, and he and Kelly still remember what it was like working with each other at camps.

“I was in charge of one field for game situations and it always seemed like (Benson) was on my field,” Kelly said about the camp. “We had a blast, he’d hit a homer, then I’d strike him out.”

After those summer camps, Kelly evolved from coaching at his alma mater to helming the pitching staff of a College World Series team with Washington in 2018.

Meanwhile, Benson was growing into one of the most promising young pitching recruits in the country.

Eventually, life came full-circle for Benson and Kelly. Their paths led them both to ASU for the 2020 season.

“When I got the call that he would be the pitching coach here, it was the best of both worlds,” Benson said.

Added Kelly: “I’ve known that family for a long time. I’ve grown up in my coaching career and the Bensons have always been around.”

Despite connecting a long time ago, the two still have a comfort level with each other. They kept in touch, Kelly said, while he was recruiting Benson to UW, and the freshman pointed out that it was nice getting to know Kelly again after years had passed.

That familiarity has also led to Kelly being especially hard on Benson when he first got to ASU, which confused the other pitchers on the staff.

“The others would ask ‘Why is JK ripping on you?’” Benson said. “Well I’ve known him forever and I know his personality. If he’s yelling then you definitely know he cares. I was ready for that right away.”

Kelly said: “He knows my personality and sarcasm. He knows when to take me seriously and when I’m joking.”

Having a familiar face guiding Benson can be incredibly important for the freshman arm. In a new state with new teammates and coaches, he has very high expectations.

With that pressure on Benson, Kelly believes having an old friend available for instruction can help a lot.

“That’s a big deal, feeling comfortable at the ballpark,” Kelly said. “A lot of times things are going very fast for you at that time and you’re just trying to get your feet on the ground. So I think having some familiarity with me has hopefully helped him.”

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