BLAKELY — The black baseball jersey hangs in the small locker, neatly pressed, ready for the next game.

A bat is propped in the back corner.

Above the locker inside the dressing room is a blue nameplate with “#51 Brantley McCorkle” inscribed. It’s almost as if the sophomore will suit up for another game for Early County High School.

McCorkle was tragically killed in a car wreck March 19 on a rural dirt road, less than a mile from his house. He was also part of the school’s ROTC unit and had taken a break from the Blakely Peanut Proud festival, an annual arts and crafts event held each spring where thousands of visitors flood the downtown square for food, crafts and a 5K road race.

McCorkle had signed in early that morning, volunteering to work as an ROTC member. He took a short break, headed home off Georgia Highway 39 and never came back.

Early County has spent the season growing closer in McCorkle’s memory. And for the first time in 11 years, the Bobcats are in the state baseball playoffs where they will travel to Cochran on Friday to play Bleckley County in a best-of-three first-round series.

First to hear

Outfielder Jeremiah Mincey was one of the first to hear about the wreck. He and his younger brother had arrived later that morning for the Peanut Proud festival. It happened about 11:45 a.m., and by noon word had gotten around about a fatal car accident.

“I started looking for all the baseball players,” Mincey said. “Then I saw Jake (Cooper) and I asked him if he knew anything about it.”

A few minutes later, each member of the baseball team received a text from Early County coach Chris Lamb, inviting them to his home closeby, where he delivered the tragic news.

“We all knew then,” Mincey said.

McCorkle was 6-foot-3 and played mostly on the junior varsity team, but he often split time between the two squads. He was usually joking and always seemed to have an encouraging word for others. And he never seemed to meet a stranger.

Outfielder Jake Sealy started in left field, the same position McCorkle sometimes played. He didn’t know McCorkle too well until this spring.

“He was a great guy to talk to,” Sealy said. “He always made people smile.”

Lamb said McCorkle knew he wasn’t going to play much on the varsity — at least not this season — but he played a role in the dugout that hasn’t been filled since.

“Brantley was always standing up giving everybody high-fives,” Sealy said. “We were playing Thomasville, and I remember him saying his voice was just about gone because he had been yelling so much.”

Playing through

After McCorkle’s accident, the team rallied together and visited both of their teammate’s parents, who are divorced. On Wednesday, the baseball team and ROTC unit were honorary pallbearers at McCorkle’s funeral. The day before, in order to return to some sort of normalcy, they played a regularly scheduled baseball game.

“Needless to say, we didn’t play that well,” Lamb said. “They were okay through the first three innings or so, then things got to them.”

The Bobcats, however, rallied to win eight straight after that to qualify for the state playoffs. McCorkle may not be in the dugout or in the dressing room, but players said they are careful not to forget him.

“We think about him in everything we do,” said infielder/pitcher Jake Cooper, who shared the locker next to McCorkle’s. “He’s family, and you’ll do anything for your family.”

Last Thursday, the baseball team held its banquet. The final piece was a video tribute to McCorkle, which moved the entire team.

Other region members have shared their condolences. The Bobcats made shirts with jersey number 51 and the initials “BM” above the number, which they wore when they played Seminole County. Seminole decorated the Early dugout with tribute memorabilia dedicated to McCorkle.

Berrien wore wrist bands and scribbled 51 on them, then exchanged them after the game.

Pelham had McCorkle’s number inscribed on its batting helmets.

Lamb took the tragedy as hard as the players. In fact, he had originally planned to schedule a junior varsity game on the day of the accident but decided to cancel because of the Peanut Proud festival.

“I often wonder if I hadn’t canceled that game and played it instead, if he would still be here,” Lamb said.

Moving ahead

McCorkle’s legacy lives on. Lamb said he plans to keep the locker just as it is. Mincey, a devout Christian who reads Bible verses and prays before every game, said he continues to keep the family in his prayers.

And the junior is always on Cooper’s mind.

“I always step off the mound and say a prayer, making sure he is still with us,” he said.

A sign in left field hangs in his memory.

When the team steps off the bus Friday in Cochran to tackle Bleckley County, No. 51 will be there on the back of the Early County jerseys.

“I know he’ll be with us there, too,” Mincey said.

No doubt he will.

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