HANCEVILLE, Ala. – Wallace State baseball was a win shy last season of claiming its first conference title since 2006, finishing as the Alabama Community College Conference (ACCC) runner-up for the second time in four years.
Coach Randy Putman and the Lions hope last season's late push translates into a bigger prize in 2016. Wallace State hosts Motlow State at 2 p.m. Friday for the season opener and also welcomes Volunteer State to James C. Bailey Stadium over the weekend, hosting a doubleheader on both Saturday and Sunday.
"I think being in that championship game gives these sophomores hope and motivation to take the extra step this season. The conference tournament run was a great one for us. We were playing good early in the season and then didn't get on the field for 31 days (because of inclement weather). We hit a lull halfway through the season, but played a whole lot better in all phases of the game as May approached, and the game became fun again," said Putman, whose team clinched a postseason berth on the final day of the regular season. "Baseball is all about consistency. You're only going to be as good as your pitching staff, and I think we have the right mix of sophomores and freshmen to make another strong run this season."
Wallace State, which went 29-24 last season, has 15 sophomores on its 2016 roster, including returning pitchers Garrett Suchey, Will Eiland and Jansen Acton, outfielder Turner Vincent, catcher/third baseman Stephen Dobbs and first baseman Lance Cleveland.
Suchey, Eiland and Acton should anchor a deep pitching staff along with freshman Jesse Scott, an Auburn transfer, and Zack Moon, a freshman from Grissom.
Suchey, who sat out last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, is in the mix to be Wallace State's ace after a strong fall season and signing with Alabama for the 2017 season. Suchey, an ASWA honorable mention All-State selection out of Mortimer Jordan, pitched in seven games during his freshman season in 2014, tossing 21 2/3 innings before experiencing elbow troubles.
"Garrett Suchey has responded well from Tommy John and did an excellent job in the fall. He's a lot more mature than he was two years ago. That third year allows guys to grow up some," said Putman, who has led Wallace State to the postseason in 24 of 26 previous seasons.
Eiland, an Auburn native, and Acton, a Saraland grad, should also register significant innings for the Lions.
Eiland, who has already signed with South Alabama, pitched primarily out of the bullpen last season, compiling a 2.37 ERA. Acton, who has signed with Georgia State, struck out 16 batters in 20 1/3 innings last season out of the bullpen.
Lane Wallace (Hueytown), Brantley Ballenger (Hoover), Wes Crawford (Mortimer Jordan) and Lane Meyer (Mansfield, Tex.) round out the sophomore pitchers.
Scott, a freshman lefty who transferred from Auburn, is expected to be a big piece of the pitching staff after helping Cullman High win its fourth state baseball title last May. Scott was a Class 6A first-team ASWA All-State selection in high school.
Putman also believes Moon can be a freshman arm to lean upon.
Vincent and Dobbs return to the Wallace State lineup after both were named to the ACCC all-tournament team last season. Vincent hit a team-leading .337 with three homers and 17 RBIs.
Cleveland, a Cullman grad, returns at first base after leading the Lions in RBIs as a freshman. Versatile outfielder Darien Prewett and utility men Ryan Goodman and Chris Steele are also back for their sophomore seasons.
Freshman Cole Collins, the 2015 Class 6A Hitter of the Year at Cullman, should be penciled in at second base for the Lions, while Brad Norman, an Auburn grad, will rack up a lot of innings behind the plate.
Putman said Mason Goodwin, another Cullman product, had one of the best individual fall seasons on the team and should see time in the outfield along with Tennessee transfer Andrew Plunkett.
Putman believes his hitters can create havoc on the base paths this season.
"We tried to become a little more athletic than we were last year. We tried to recruit some freshman guys who can go first to third easily instead of playing station-to-station baseball. We want to put pressure on the other team," Putman said. "The teams who have won here in the past have always been able to hit and had strong pitching. Last year's team struggled to hit at times. I feel we are now capable of scoring runs in multiple ways."
Wallace State's roster includes four players (Cleveland, Collins, Goodwin and Scott) from Cullman High and three from Auburn High (Eiland, Norman and infielder Jonathan Smith).
Pitchers on the roster not previously mentioned are Neal Collins (Gadsden City), Blake Schilleci (Oak Mountain), Jake Nelson (Hartselle), Parks Shoulders (Mountain Brook), Peyton Hayes (Grissom), Chance Holliman (Cleveland) and Braxton Light (Southside-Gadsden).
Position players on the roster not previously mentioned are Blake Helton (Northgate (Ga.), John Sklopan (Saraland), Briley Reeves (Rogers), Kristian Franklin (Milton, Ga.), Tanner Moye (Oneonta), Gerrio Rahming (Bahamas) and Will Wren (West Point).
Wallace State begins conference play on March 17 at Calhoun. The home conference opener is March 19 vs. the Warhawks.
Putman, a NJCAA Hall of Fame coach, enters his 27th season at Wallace State with a 939-425 career record, guiding his teams to seven ACCC championships and six NJCAA Division I World Series appearances.
"I love being on the baseball field every day, whether it's the first season or 27th. Like Nick Saban referenced, I've always been involved with a team since I was 6 years old. I can't see myself doing anything else," said Putman, who has coached six players at Wallace State to make the major leagues, including Boston Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel, Texas Rangers starter Derek Holland and Brewers infielder Jake Elmore.
Chad Shannon enters his second season as Wallace State's pitching coach, and Luke Satterfield returns to the coaching staff for the third consecutive year.
For more information about Wallace State athletics, visit athletics.wallacestate.edu.
Picture: Wallace State baseball coach Randy Putman, left, talks with outfielder Turner Vincent at third base last season