Darton shortstop Ventavis Jerger is one of the top rated junior college baseball players in the country and till try to lead the Cavs to their first Region XVII championship this season. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)
ALBANY — Darton State baseball coach Scot Hemmings doesn’t shy away from the expectations he has for his team.
In fact, he talks about them every day.
He talks about the lofty goals and the overflowing talent — and the championship trophy he expects to be holding at the end of the season.
He also reminds his 2014 Cavaliers how all of that came crashing down last season.
“I remind them of the three balls we threw down the right field line on that Thursday game (in last year’s Region XVII tournament) when Davis Adkins struck out 10 (and Darton still lost),” Hemmings said. “I remind them how many times we left the bases loaded in the championship game. I remind them every day of the little things that got us beat for a conference championship.”
Hemmings and the Cavs open the season today in Panama City, Fla., against Gulf Coast Community College, and the third-year coach believes his team has the talent and the work ethic to bounce back from last year’s disappointing finish and claim their first region title in school history.
“I don’t think I have ever had a team that works this hard,” he said. “I think that is fair to say with the amount of expectations and pressure we put on them. I am proud of them and the way they come out here and go about their business every day.”
Darton starts the season unranked in the NJCAA’s Top 20 National Poll, a subdued beginning for a Cavs team that rose as high as No. 9 in last year’s poll, set a school record with 47 wins in a season and returns several of its top position players and pitchers.
After staying on top of the region standings for most of the regular season last year, the Cavs stumbled in late April to rival Middle Georgia and went into the region tournament as the third seed. The Cavs rallied to the championship game, where they lost to Middle Georgia, which later had to forfeit that win and four others against Darton during the season because of an ineligible player.
It was a record-breaking year in 2013, but it still wasn’t enough for a Cavs team that was 85-29 in Hemmings’ first two years as head coach but aspires for even more.
“The last game last year was a heartbreaker. We all fell short, and that’s motivating us and pushing us not to fall short this year,” said Adkins, a Cordele native and sophomore closer-turned-starter who led the nation last year with a 0.58 ERA. “This year could be really special. We have a really special lineup this year and outstanding players behind us.”
Adkins, a former star at Crisp County, is one of Darton’s key pieces returning this season. The right-hander began the 2013 season as the closer — eventually turning into one of the nation’s top relievers — but was moved to the starting rotation, where he will be the anchor as the No. 3 starter.
“I always say a closer is a closer, but you don’t always need a closer. You need a starter,” Hemmings said of Adkins. “He led the country in ERA last year. I don’t think you can have that guy on the back end.”
Joining Adkins in the rotation will be John Harman and Brandon Goldsmith — who had a combined win-loss record of 13-3 last season — and freshman Eric Henderson.
One of the key arms out of the bullpen will be that of Douglas Nobles, a former Westwood pitcher who was The Herald’s co-Player of the Year in 2012. Nobles signed with Georgia Southern after leading the Wildcats to a GISA state championship, but before his freshman season was released from his scholarship for violating team rules. He walked on at Darton last fall and earned a scholarship in January.
“He has been one of our hardest workers,” Hemmings said of Nobles. “He is going to be one of our dominant guys out of the bullpen.”
Darton’s lineup is led by returners Ventavis Jerger, Riliani Familia, Brandon Sharpe and Rashad Billups. Jerger is moving from third base to shortstop, stepping in monster shoes left by Cody Wofford, who is now a starter at Division I Western Kentucky.
But Hemmings thinks Jerger, who hit .317 and stole 26 bases last season, can be the leader who takes the Cavs to new heights.
“He has an unbelievable arm and is probably the best pure athlete I have ever laid eyes on,” Hemmings said of Jerger, who ran a 6.2 60-yard dash in the offseason and is considered one of the top professional prospects in the southeastern part of the country. “The question of (Jerger), is can he play when the lights come on? If he can play when the lights come on the way he played in certain games last year, I think we will be a very good baseball team.”
Familia, Sharpe — who led the state in RBIs last season with 43 — and Trey Haygood will patrol the outfield for Darton. Billups will resume his position at first base; freshman Tavin Thompson will play third; freshman Luis Salas will start at second; and sophomore Division II signees Payton Mann and Hill Thomas will platoon at catcher.
“This team is more talented than last year’s team,” Hemmings said. “It depends on how tough we become if things don’t go right. The last two years everything has gone right for most of the season. I will be anxious to see once we hit adversity how tough we will be.”
Hemmings said the team’s success will ultimately be decided by his seven leaders — Harmon, Adkins, Goldsmith, Jerger, Familia, Billups and Sharpe.
“If they play to their potential this will be an unbelievable year,” he said. “We are putting our stock in those seven guys in leading this team. The freshmen need to have a support role this year, but if those seven do what they are capable of doing, it’s going to be a great year.”
And it might be a year that ultimately collides again with Middle Georgia, which is in its final year in the NJCAA before becoming a four-year athletic program.
“We all know a lot of the guys from Middle, and they all run their mouths to us,” Adkins said. “We just keep our mouths shut and let the game speak for itself. This is their last year in a junior college conference. They want (a conference championship) bad this year, so we are going to take care of business this year.”