HANCEVILLE – Wallace State's baseball team opens the 2014 season on Friday, hosting Volunteer (Tenn.) in a weekend series.
As is the goal each season, Wallace State's primary objective is to win a state championship and advance to the NJCAA World Series in Grand Junction, Colo.
A couple of milestones will certainly be recognized along the way.
Wallace State baseball coach Randy Putman enters the season 10 wins shy of 900 career victories with the Lions. The NJCAA Hall of Fame coach is also embarking on his 25th season in Hanceville.
"I hope it doesn't take too long," Putman joked about reaching the 900-win plateau. "Our schedule is not made for success. Our schedule is made to prepare us for the state tournament in May and the team (Volunteer State) we play tomorrow may be the best team we play all year."
Putman has led Wallace State to the postseason in 23 of his previous 24 years, winning seven Alabama Community College Conference (ACCC) state championships, six Southeastern Regional championships and six NJCAA World Series appearances, the last coming in 2006.
He enters the 2014 season with an 890-367 career record at Wallace State.
"To be able to reach 900 wins at one school is an exciting milestone to think about, but our focus is about getting better each day. Being here 25 years is something I'm proud of though because a lot of coaches like to jump from place to place. Loyalty is hard to find now. I'm proud I've been a part of this college's success for so long," Putman said.
Wallace State finished 29-23-1 last season, finishing second in the ACCC North Division. The Lions advanced to the quarterfinal round at the state tournament in Ozark.
There aren't many familiar faces back from last year's team.
"We have so many freshmen on this year's ballclub. We have to get our feet wet during the first couple of weeks. We were very picky on the sophomores we brought back from last year's team and felt like the sophomores we did bring back are good leaders," Putman said. "We planned it that way all along. We may run out a lineup of nine freshmen, but the more they play, the better they'll get."
Wallace State's pitching staff is the one unit littered with some sophomore experience. Southpaw Izaac Yarbrough will anchor the starting rotation after finishing 4-2 with a 1.85 ERA last season. He threw 48 2/3 innings, recording 36 strikeouts and issuing only nine walks in 12 appearances, including nine starts. Yarbrough has already committed to Auburn University for next season.
Alex Hegner will complement Yarbrough in the rotation after making 10 starts and recording one save last season. Hegner, a Marietta, Ga. native, went 3-4 with a 3.55 ERA in 58 1/3 innings.
Wallace State should also get a boost from redshirt sophomore Grant Bennett. The Hazel Green native was a huge asset during Wallace State's 41-win season and ACCC championship game appearance in 2012, when he finished 7-1 with a 2.30 ERA in eight starts and was named to the ACCC/Region 22 second team. Bennett battled through multiple arm issues last season to force the redshirt season.
Putman expects freshmen Chad Smith, Colton Campbell and Lane Meyer to be strong contributors to the pitching staff. Campbell was the Class 3A Player of the Year at Plainview High last season and the 3A Hitter of the Year. On the mound, Campbell went 11-1 with a 1.05 ERA with 103 strikeouts, four shutouts, five no-hitters and one perfect game.
"All of our freshmen pitchers have done well so far. Assistant (coach) Adam Scott does a phenomenal job with our pitchers, but we always have to see what happens when the scoreboard is turned on," Putman said. "We're putting a lot of eggs in our basket when we talk about (Izaac) Yarbrough, (Alex) Hegner and (Grant) Bennett. We're counting on those guys to have good years. We do feel we have a lot of pitching depth. We may not have that one stud or horse, but we feel like we've got some depth."
Wallace State returns only one homer and 33 RBIs combined among its position players, so many freshmen will be asked to carry the offensive load.
Bennett will see a lot of time at first base when he's not pitching.
Dalton Carriker is Wallace State's opening day second baseman. Carriker made the national spotlight as a 12 year old when he helped his Warner Robins (Ga.) team win the 2007 Little League World Series with a walk-off homer against Japan in Williamsport, Pa.
Putman believes his team will receive solid outfield production from freshmen Drake Tucker and Jacob Hill. Tucker was a Class 4A All-State selection at Brooks High in Florence, hitting .487 with 60 RBIs, an AHSAA-record 31 doubles, six homers and six triples. He also stole 23 bases and set a 4A single-season record with 95 hits. Hill is from Cumming, Ga.
Sophomores Andrew Smith and Colt Buttram will also see significant time in the outfield. Frank Alcantara, a native of the Dominican Republic, returns in the infield, while Zac Hatfield and Joe Klepac will each share time at catcher and designated hitter.
Carriker and Hill are two of nine Georgia natives on this season's roster.
"There was no rhyme or reason to recruiting a lot of Georgia guys. It just happened. We saw some of those guys early and they were interested in us. A lot of them played against some great competition in high school. I don't believe the competition on this level is going to affect them as much as some of our guys who came from smaller schools," Putman said.
Wallace State had catcher Andrew Dennis drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 37th round last season, making him the 31st player to play for Putman and join the professional ranks. Two summers ago, ace Bret Marks was drafted by the New York Yankees in the 22nd round, but he is continuing his collegiate career at Tennessee.
Among its former players, Wallace State baseball currently has All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel set for a big payday with the Atlanta Braves, starter Derek Holland entering his sixth season with the Texas Rangers, utility man Jake Elmore going to spring training with the Chicago White Sox and six others, including Dennis, in the minor leagues.
Wallace State will play a doubleheader vs. Volunteer State on Friday beginning at 1 p.m. and wrap up the three-game set at 1 p.m. Saturday. The Lions then travel to Panama City, Fla., on Feb. 7 for the annual Gulf Coast Tournament.
Conference play begins Feb. 28 at Snead State.
For more information about Wallace State athletics, visit wallacestate.edu.
Pictured is Head Coach Randy Putman