HANCEVILLE, ALA. – Wallace State's baseball team opens the 2015 season on Thursday with a sophomore-laden pitching staff and newcomers scattered up and down the lineup.
"I think we are going to be a talented team, and I think this team is going to be very passionate about wanting to win. The sophomores don't want to experience the type of season we did last year. We had a lot of injuries, but at the same time we just weren't a very good ball club. Our sophomores are determined to get back to the ways this program has been accustomed to over the last two decades," said Wallace State coach Randy Putman, a NJCAA Hall of Famer. "We are excited about the challenge ahead. I'm looking forward to it as much as I did in January 1990. I'm sure my uniform is on before some of our players and coaches get out of bed."
Last season was an aberration for the Wallace State baseball program as the Lions missed out on the postseason for only the second time since 1990. Putman did surpass the 900-win plateau last season and enters his 26th season at Wallace State with a 910-401 career record. He has led the Lions to seven Alabama Community College Conference (ACCC) state championships and six NJCAA World Series appearances, the last coming in 2006.
Wallace State will lean on its pitching staff early in 2015 as the program looks to build towards a familiar postseason berth. The Lions season opener is Thursday at 3 p.m. against Motlow State at James C. Bailey Stadium. The teams will play a doubleheader.
Sophomore Chad Smith, a McAdory graduate, had a breakthrough fall season for the Lions and should anchor the starting rotation. As a freshman, Smith made 17 appearances, including six starts. He went 2-4 with a 4.05 ERA. His strong fall season secured a pledge to Ole Miss after his Wallace State career is complete.
Landon Hughes returns to the bullpen after serving as one of Wallace State's most reliable arms last season, primarily as the closer. Hughes finished 1-1 with a 3.33 ERA and four saves, striking out 29 hitters in 27 innings.
Hunter Belue, a Georgia native, returns to the fold after serving as both a starter and reliever last season. He compiled a 3.18 ERA in 34 innings, making four starts among 12 appearances.
Bailey Chesser and West Point's Wesley Waters are also sophomore arms returning for the Lions, while Luke Porter has converted from catcher to pitcher.
"Our pitching staff has experience and that's huge. You aren't going to be successful at any level without pitching. We are expecting a lot of good things from our sophomore pitchers, and we're also excited about some of the things the freshman arms can bring," Putman said.
Putman believes freshman hurlers Jansen Acton, a Saraland grad, and Will Eiland, an Auburn grad, can provide a significant lift to the rotation.
"Those two guys should be major factors for us. I'm excited about the pitchers. (Assistant coach) Chad Shannon has taken them and continued to do the same things that (former assistant) Adam Scott did with them," Putman said. "I think they've really improved and made great strides since the fall, which tells me they are good listeners and can apply what Chad has been teaching them."
Wallace State will rely on a myriad of freshmen to score runs.
Sophomore second baseman Chris Blakey is the lone returner on the infield. Lance Cleveland and Auston Neal, both Cullman grads and ASWA All-State selections, should split time at first base along with sophomore Oliver Francis.
Putman expects Chris Steele and Tanner Gardner to share time at shortstop. Steele played at Etowah High School, while Gardner is an Oxford native. Lane Wallace and Brady Bedingfield should split time at third base for the Lions. Wallace played at Hueytown High School, and Bedingfield was an All-State third baseman at Brooks.
Putman feels the Lions have depth to plug into the outfield.
Sophomore Drake Tucker returns in center field after hitting .274 with 24 RBIs and six stolen bases last season.
Putman believes that Turner Vincent (Northview HS in Dothan) will secure a spot in left field with Jon Sumner in right field. Sumner was the Class 6A MVP in 2014 as he led Spain Park to a state title.
Billy Reed (Hoover HS), Alex Urban (Pelham) and Darren Prewett (Columbia, Tenn.) should also see considerable time in the outfield.
Reed, Stephen Dobbs (Hoover) and Brandt Holland (Deshler) will split time at catcher.
"I think we can win with all of these freshmen. It's going to be a team that is similar to some of the old Wallace State teams in that we've got to swing it to be successful. My coaching philosophy is to always outhit the opponent and have the pitching compete every time out," Putman said. "I think we can do that."
Chad Shannon joins the Wallace State coaching staff after four seasons as Vinemont's head baseball coach.
"Chad is a very valuable asset to our team. He is very mature and very knowledgeable. He has tremendous communication with our players. He's an excellent pitching coach and excellent assistant coach," Putman said. "Chad works very hard and is the same type of coach I am. He can't let it go. Even when we leave the field and go home, we are still thinking about baseball. We are thinking about it when we wake up."
Luke Satterfield is also part of the coaching staff for the second consecutive season.
Wallace State baseball has recently enjoyed a remarkable run of having its former players promoted to the major leagues. Zelous Wheeler was the latest Wallace State player to make his MLB debut last July as he was promoted to the New York Yankees, marking the fifth time in six seasons one of Putman's former players was called to The Show. Wheeler joined Derek Holland (2009), Craig Kimbrel (2010), Graham Godfrey (2011) and Jake Elmore (2012) as former Lions to make the big leagues.
After Thursday's opener, Wallace State hosts Volunteer State for a doubleheader on Saturday, beginning at 1 p.m., and closes the series with a 1 p.m. game on Sunday.
Wallace State's conference opener is March 19 vs. Calhoun.
Central Alabama and Southern Union join the ACCC North Division for the first time after the conference switched from three divisions to two.
Remaining pitchers on Wallace State's roster are Weston Bonner (Berry HS), Ryan Masonia (Brooks), Hunter Linn (Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa), Adam Berryhill (Lauderdale County), Zac Pope (Auburn), Wes Crawford (Mortimer Jordan), Austin Treglown (Hewitt-Trussville), Connor Galloway (Pelham) and Brantley Ballenger (Hoover).
Rounding out the position players on Wallace State's roster are Ryan Goodman (Lithia Springs, Ga.), Joseph Felix (Santo Domingo, D.R.), Brett Blackwelder (Tate, Fla.), Jordan Simpson (Lawrence County), Tanner Oakes (Hartselle), Camp Metcalf (Decatur) and Daniel Conley (Hartselle).
Pictured is Landon Hughes