Darton State College baseball star Cody Wofford is one of four returning position players for the Cavs, who had a solid first season under new coach Scot Hemmings last year. Darton opens the 2013 season today. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
ALBANY — Casey James jolted past the lip of the infield and dove to his left, sprawling across the grass for a sharply hit ground ball.
James, Darton’s All-American first baseman, grimaced as the ball spun out of his glove, unable to track down the near-impossible shot down the right field line.
It was just a routine batting practice Thursday afternoon on the Darton baseball field, but it was tough to tell that it wasn’t more.
“If you ask any guy out here, it’s very tough to play here, but they love playing here,” Darton coach Scot Hemmings said. “You are demanded to be perfect. Not perfect performance, but perfect effort every day.”
With four MLB scouts on hand with video cameras, radar guns and stopwatches rolling, Thursday’s practice was full of hustle and a business-like approach that Hemmings has instilled in the program in his second year in Albany.
“There is a sense of pride around here, a work ethic and a way that we handle our business,” Hemmings said. “We are going to take care of business, and we are going to get you out of here. The guys have bought into that, and every day when they show up it’s work time.”
Year No. 2 for Hemmings starts today when the Cavs open the season with a doubleheader against Gulf Coast Community College and Tallahassee Community College in Panama City, Fla.
Darton returns ace A.J. Sunstrom and a handful of key hitters from last year’s team that went 37-21, won 27 of 29 games during a stretch midway through the season and was ranked as high as 12th in the nation.
This year could be even more special.
“It’s amazing to have this kind of exposure out here,” returning shortstop and second-team All-Region XVII selection Cody Wofford said, referring to the series of MLB scouts that have flooded the Cavs’ practice this spring. “Darton has come a long way. We had a great season last year, and word got out that we have some players. We are shooting to make it all the way this year.”
Wofford and James headline a Darton lineup that is as talented as it is deep and includes four of the top hitters from last year’s team — Division I-signee catchers Davis Knapp (.302 BA, 34 runs, 24 RBI) and Tripp Calhoun (.335 BA, 28 runs, 26 RBI), Wofford (.335 BA, 36 runs, 32 RBI) and James (.324 BA, 24 runs, 19 RBI).
Sophomores Kody Adams, an outfielder and Division I transfer from Georgia State, and second baseman Nate Ferrell, a transfer and All-Region player from Andrew College, and freshmen Brandon Sharpe (OF, St. Simons Island), Ventavis Jerger (3B, Tallahassee, Fla.), Trey Haygood (OF, Valdosta) and Riliani Familia (OF, Dominican Republic) add even more talent to a stacked lineup.
“We think this year is going to be very exciting,” said James, a native of Brunswick. “A conference championship is definitely a goal, but in the back of our minds we want to reach the (national championship).”
The Cavs lost in the semifinals of last year’s Region XVII tournament but made plenty of noise in the regular season when they hit .316 as a team (25th in the nation) and were led by sophomore Kevin Manos, who is now playing at Georgia Southwestern.
Manos might be gone, but Hemmings said the depth is better than ever.
“The key to this lineup is that you have unbelievable speed at the top and the bottom, you have probably three 40-base stealers in the lineup and then you have 3-4-5-6 hitters that can drive the ball in the gaps and out of the park,” the coach said.
The Cavs also lost the bulk of their pitching staff, including Lee County native Matt Aldrich, who is now at Columbus State, and Tyler Oglesby, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery and transferred to Georgia Gwinnett College.
Sunstrom, the only remaining pitcher from last year’s rotation, will lead this year’s staff and returns with his 8-1 record, 2.34 ERA and 46 strikeouts.
“Everybody made a big deal about Aldrich’s strikeouts and Oglesby’s velocity (last year), but at the end of the day when you look at pure numbers, A.J. had just as many strikeouts per innings pitched,” Hemmings said. “And he was 8-1. The bottom line is that he won.
“If I would have started him from the first weekend, he probably would have been 11-1. I didn’t start him because I didn’t know if he could get guys out throwing 80 mph, but he proved me wrong. A.J. is as good as you can find at any level.”
Sunstrom is joined in this year’s rotation by newcomers Casey Moody — a Williamson native and Georgia signee who didn’t make it through the NCAA Clearinghouse process and landed at Darton — Kyle Conkle (Fort Payne, Ala.), John Harman (Carrollton), Brandon Goldsmith (Hamilton) and Cameron Martin (Nahunta).
The bullpen will feature former Crisp County star Davis Adkins, Lee County native Cole Goodwin, Ryan McCranie (Covington), Chris Long (Zebulon) and Ryan Good (Brunswick).
“We have a good team, a good pitching staff and good hitters,” James said. “We are going to be able to do some good things out here, so we are looking forward to this season.”
And James is looking forward to another year under a coach that he says has brought both respect and major-league attention to the Darton program.
“He got here late (last year), so we didn’t know what to expect,” James said. “But immediately you know you were in the presence of a guy who knew baseball.
“He is very demanding, but that’s what brings the success. He is a great coach and knows the game of baseball. He teaches us, and we just sit back and listen to him. He knows so much about it, and we just have to soak it up and accept what he has to give us because it’s going to benefit us in the long run.”
Wofford said he and his teammates are thriving under the expectations of Hemmings and his coaching staff.
“He doesn’t want anything short of greatness,” Wofford said. “To win it all, we have to play every game like it’s our last. It’s not the games that matter. It’s the practices, so you have to bring it every day.”