HANCEVILLE – Win or lose, Wallace State's baseball team always has a postgame meeting down the left field line.
Thursday's conference was one to celebrate. Wallace State's players lined up on the chalk and congratulated Randy Putman after the Hall of Fame coach earned his 900th career victory with the program.
Sophomore Grant Bennett went eight strong innings on the mound and added a triple at the plate to propel the Lions to a 7-2 triumph over conference foe Lawson State in their series opener at James C. Bailey Stadium, helping Putman achieve another milestone during his legendary coaching career.
"Getting to 900 is a thrill for me. It brings back a lot of memories. Baseball is the greatest game in the world because it's made for the memories. I've had so many great memories. It means I've exchanged lineups a lot of times and made a lot of pitching changes," said Putman, whose players also celebrated by giving him a shaving cream pie to the face. "I appreciate all the former players who have been here. I was fortunate enough to have some here today (Thursday). There are a lot of reasons it's a thrill to me and a lot of reasons that have played into the success here, starting with the administration and working all the way down."
Putman is currently in his 25th season at Wallace State and had guided the Lions to the postseason in 23 of his previous 24 seasons at the college, winning seven state championships and making six National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) World Series appearances. He was inducted into the Alabama Junior College Hall of Fame in 1991, the NJCAA Coaches Hall of Fame in 2006 and the Alabama Coaches Hall of Fame in January 2009.
At Wallace State, Putman coached current major league players Craig Kimbrel of the Atlanta Braves, a three-time NL All-Star, Derek Holland of the Texas Rangers and Jake Elmore of the Oakland Athletics. Overall, Putman has coached 31 players who went on to play professionally after their Wallace State careers, including former infielder Zelous Wheeler, who still has a chance to crack the New York Yankees opening day roster.
On Thursday, Bennett gave Putman and the Lions (10-21, 3-7 Alabama Community College Conference) the shot in the arm they needed. Bennett, a Hazel Green native, struck out six and walked four over eight innings, allowing two runs on five hits. He retired 12 of the last 13 batters he faced and 15 of the last 17.
Bennett (3-3) redshirted last season after suffering an arm injury, but is slowly returning to the form he displayed in 2012 when he earned all-conference recognition and helped Wallace State win 41 games and a share of the ACCC North Division crown.
"Grant Bennett a warrior. He's just that type of guy. Right now, we need a few more guys like him," Putman said. "He was a big part of our success two years ago and he's been on the mound each time we've won a conference game this season."
Bennett was honored to be the winning pitcher during Putman's 900th win.
"It's important to me because we've struggled all year, and coach Putman has literally almost put his life on the line. I hope this helps turn things around for us," Bennett said. "We've got to take it one pitch at a time and try to get as many wins as we can the rest of the way."
Putman spent the better part of two weeks in the hospital earlier this month and is scheduled to have surgery once the season is complete. Until this season, Putman had hardly missed a practice or a game during his Wallace State career, much less a day from work.
"I want to get this thing turned around. This year has been difficult just for the fact that's it's been a struggle on the field, and my health hasn't been the best. We lost some confidence early, and it's been a struggle for some to regain it," Putman said. "This was a must-win game for us. The next two games this weekend are also must wins in order for us to get back into the Northern Division race."
Trailing 1-0 in the second inning, Wallace State plated a pair of runs against Lawson State on an RBI single by Jacob Hill and a Chris Blakey sacrifice fly.
The Lions made it 3-1 in the third on an RBI single by Drake Tucker and added two more in the fifth on a run-scoring double by Tucker and a Nate Smith sac fly. Wallace State padded on to its lead with single runs in the sixth and eighth innings.
Tucker finished 3-for-3 with a double, walk and two RBIs, Dalton Carriker was 3-for-4 with a double, Blakey had a pair of RBIs, Joe Klepac contributed an RBI double and Zac Hatfield added a double.
Hunter Belue pitched a scoreless ninth in relief of Bennett.
Former Wallace State pitcher Gil Walker was at the ballpark, serving as a Lawson State assistant, and Bret Marks, who was drafted by the New York Yankees out of Wallace State, but instead chose to remain in school was also on hand for Putman's achievement. Marks is now pitching for the Tennessee Volunteers.
The Lions and Cougars continue the three-game set Saturday in Birmingham with a doubleheader beginning at noon.
For more information about Wallace State athletics, visit wallacestate.edu.
Pictured right is Coach Putman shaking hands following shaving cream pie.
Team congratulates Coach Putman after victory