Fire Ants hope to crash JUCO party
It’s happened so fast even coach Tom Fleenor isn’t quite sure what the University of South Carolina-Sumter baseball program has accomplished.
In just its second season, Fleenor has the Fire Ants (47-7) ranked third in the NJCAA poll and talking about qualifying for the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series.
Howard (Texas) College (50-0) and Yavapai (Ariz.) College (45-8) remained first and second in the poll, respectively. Young Harris (Ga.) College (41-10) is fourth and Walters State (Tenn.) Community College is fifth.
Miami-Dade College (37-10), Central Arizona College (43-10), San Jacinto (Texas) College-North (37-9), Spartanburg Methodist (S.C.) College (47-7) and Wallace State (Ala.) Community College-Hanceville (35-10) round out the top 10.
Fleenor was an assistant at NCAA Division II University of South Carolina-Upstate two years ago when he heard about USC-Sumter starting a program for 2008.
“When I interviewed they said, ‘You’ll have no scholarship money, no budget or practice field to speak of. How does it sound?’ I said, ‘I’ll take it,’ ” Fleenor said. “I didn’t even have a baseball. I spent every night at the field and had a pretty good list to chose from (for recruiting).
“I thought, how special would it be to start a program from scratch? We were 37-19 the first year with a bunch of freshmen. It’s been a very special experience.”
Fleenor’s expectations went from simply being competitive to winning 40-plus games and competing for a World Series berth.
“We have 20 sophomores and most of them got significant time last year,” he said. “I had white T-shirts made in August with ‘Grand Junction’ on it. We wear them every Friday before every conference series. We had high expectations after what we accomplished last year.
“If we don’t make it to Grand Junction, it will be a great disappointment, but it will not be a great failure. It’s something we’ve talked about since Day 1.
“I don’t know if it’s truly hit me what we’ve accomplished. I’m so glad for the kids that took a chance on us. I have four great coaches and not one makes a dime.
“My top assistant, Greg Keaton, has 20 years of experience. He was frustrated where he was and is an incredible resource for the kids. Everything falling into place. It’s been a fairy tale.”
The fairy tale is nearing its end.
USC-Sumter won the Region 10 regular-season championship and are guaranteed a spot in the Eastern District tournament May 15-16 at the Region 15 champion. The Eastern District champion advances to the World Series from May 23-30 at Suplizio Field.
“We’ve readjusted our goals. Now we’re going for 50 wins,” Fleenor said. “We have a proud bunch of kids. All they want to do is win. We’ll be disappointed if we do not win the region tournament. I’m not looking to do any favors for anyone right now. We’ll take next week and try to get better.”