Worth County grad and Herald 2010 Player of the Year Allen Fender is among several former Southwest Georgia prep stars who are helping Albany State have one of its best baseball seasons in years. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)
ALBANY — Allen Fender starts to tell the story, and then a smile begins to stretch across his face.
He beams as he recounts it, still shaking his head at the improbable ending.
Fender’s baseball career is back, and the story of its resurrection is one the Albany State sophomore and former Worth County star loves to tell.
“When I tell people the story, they look at me like, ‘Really?’ ” Fender said. “I was playing softball on a Sunday, and that’s how I got back in college baseball.”
After getting released from Darton because of poor grades and then spending two years away from baseball, Fender, The Herald’s 2010 Player of the Year while at Worth County, was spotted by ASU baseball coach Kenyan Conner at a fundraising softball tournament last summer.
“When coach Conner’s team played mine, he came out in the outfield and told me to throw him the ball,” Fender remembers. “I threw him the ball, and then he came up to me after the game and told me he wanted me to come to Albany State. I told him ‘Yeah, I’m ready for it.’ ”
It’s an unlikely story, but it’s one that put the left-handed pitcher on the mound for an Albany State team that is loaded with former Southwest Georgia prep stars. Fender, a native of Sylvester, is joined by pitcher Drew Bacon (Leesburg, Lee County/Randolph Southern), outfielder Jacob Campbell (Albany, Westover), outfielder Josh Brunswick (Dawson, Terrell Academy) and first baseman Michael Byron (Cordele, Crisp County).
“I guess I did make an effort to go out and get local kids,” Conner said. “I think the kids in this area are gritty kids who will play hard for you. They are low-maintenance guys and country boys who don’t cry a lot. They just want to play and go to school, and it’s been a nice fit because all of them are great kids.”
They’ve been pretty good on the field, too.
Campbell is eighth in the nation with a .464 batting average and also leads the team in on-base percentage (.546), slugging percentage (.640) and doubles (11) and is second with 38 RBIs. Fender, the team’s Sunday starter, has a 6-2 record and a 3.60 ERA with 43 strikeouts. Bacon is 6-3 with a 5.62 ERA, a 2.1:1 strike-ball ratio and 41 strikeouts. Brunswick and Byron aren’t starters, but in spot plate appearances they have combined for six hits and five RBIs in 33 at-bats.
Campbell has been at ASU since 2011 and Byron was on the roster last season, but Fender, Bacon and Brunswick are all first-year Rams.
ASU, which is 26-15 overall and a perfect 17-0 in the SIAC, is in the middle of one of its best seasons in years — and the Southwest Georgia products are a big reason why.
Campbell is a four-year starter for the Rams, but Fender and Bacon took long, winding roads to ASU.
As a high school senior, Fender led Worth County to its second Region 1-AAAA championship since 1959 and signed early with Darton College, where he broke his throwing hand his freshman season and then failed to qualify academically in the fall of his sophomore season.
“It was on me. It was my fault,” he said. “I got into college and didn’t take it seriously, and it backfired on me.”
The lefty with a wicked curve ball and a fastball that reaches 87 mph stepped away from baseball after leaving Darton and took a job at Coopercraft Communications in Tifton.
Every now and then, he played recreational softball on the weekends — which is where he was last summer when Conner just happened to be playing in the same tournament. Campbell was there as well, and he and his coach spent the day selling their team to Fender.
Before the day was over, Conner offered Fender a spot on the roster. He accepted without hesitation.
In the months since Fender’s return to baseball, he has gotten stronger with every game he’s thrown. He began the year with an ERA approaching 10 and lost his first three starts, but he has rebounded with six straight wins and his ERA is dropping about as sharply as the tail end of his curve.
“I am grateful that coach Conner was there at that softball game,” Fender said. ”I have a lot of respect for the man, because not very many people get picked up playing softball on Sunday.”
Bacon’s journey started in Leesburg, where he played under legendary coach Rob Williams for two seasons before sitting out a year and transferring to Randolph Southern for his senior season in 2010. He also signed with Darton and pitched for the Cavs his freshman season, but wasn’t brought back a second year and opted not to play baseball the last two years.
However, Bacon never left Conner’s radar.
“Coach stayed on me, and I couldn’t really say no to him after two or three times of him asking me to (come back to baseball),” Bacon said. “I can’t believe they stuck by me that long and that coach kept trying to get me even though I got into some trouble.”
Bacon’s legal troubles peaked in July 2012 when he was arrested for various charges after leading police on a high-speed chase — which reached speeds of 136 mph — in a brand new Chevy Camaro that he had won from a contest at the clothing chain Men’s Warehouse.
He spent 30 days in jail, time that he said gave him the opportunity to rethink many of his decisions.
“It made me realize that there are a lot more important things in life than the immediate satisfaction of having a good time and partying,” Bacon said. “Life is a long road, and every time you screw up it puts you behind a lot. It makes it that much tougher to get back on track.”
Bacon’s life looks a lot different now than it did from inside a jail cell two summers ago, and the right-hander has turned into a cornerstone of the ASU pitching staff. Of the 827 pitches he has thrown this season, 560 have been strikes, which pitching coach Jay Flynt said is the key to his success.
He throws a fastball 81-83 mph and then surprises hitters with a knuckle-curve that he’s had in his arsenal for years.
Bacon and Fender have combined for nearly half of ASU’s victories and will both take the mound this weekend when the Rams host Paine College and try to finish their SIAC regular season undefeated with their seventh straight conference sweep.
“We wouldn’t be where we are without those two, without a doubt,” Campbell said. “They have been huge. Pitching has been the best it’s been here in four years, and those two guys have been the anchor of it.”
Campbell has been the anchor of the batting order and has MLB scouts eyeing him for June’s draft. He played in the California Collegiate League last summer in Southern California, where he developed as a prospect and put himself on display for professional scouts. Now Campbell is ranked in the Top 10 in all of Division II in both batting average and on-base percentage and is also in the Top 50 in total bases, hits, RBIs and slugging percentage.
In Campbell’s four years on ASU’s roster, the Rams are without a conference championship — and the former Westover star said he is focusing on getting an SIAC title ring first and worrying about a professional contract later.
“When we take care of the (SIAC championship) ring and get to regionals, then I can start worrying about getting a contract,” he said midway through the season. “But my main goal right now is winning and doing what it takes to get there.”