READY TO STING: Florence-Darlington embracing underdog role
Preston McDonald was fresh out of college when he became an assistant baseball coach at Florence-Darlington Technical College (South Carolina) in 2008. One year later, he was the Stingers’ skipper.
Seven years after that, he has Florence-Darlington in the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series.
Yes, his career has been on the fast track, and his life is only going to start moving faster — his wife is pregnant with twins, due in mid-July. A boy and a girl, their first children.
“We’re praying and hoping they wait until I get home,” he said.
He’s also the school’s athletic director, and after winning the Eastern District championship, things got really busy.
“Right now it’s a little stressful. We’re trying to get flights booked and hotels called and letting them know we’re the ones staying with them, a little bit of everything,” McDonald said. “It’s exciting.”
A former player’s mother is a travel agent in Florence and pitched in with arrangements, and on Monday, the school launched a GoFundMe account to help defray some of the costs. Other coaches with World Series experience have called with some advice on what to expect once the Stingers (42-17) get to Grand Junction.
“There are a bunch of great guys who have had the opportunity to be in there and told me it’s going to be one of the best experiences of these guys’ lives,” McDonald said. “We’re really looking forward to it; they’ve talked me through everything, given me pointers.”
McDonald was eager to get his team on the plane, then see the mountains on the bus ride from Denver, but most of all, he can’t wait to get the Stingers on the field. They’re on a 15-game winning streak and he doesn’t want them to cool off any time soon.
“We pride ourselves on playing hard and that’s not something we reward, that’s something we expect,” the 32-year-old coach said. “If we ground to first they’ll be hustling down the line, they run to first on walks, we hustle on and off the field. We like to play the right way.”
That includes having fun.
“We’ll be laughing and joking and having fun,” he said. “We’ll be as loose as anybody in the place. I feel like I’m pretty young, I’m 32, and two of my coaches are in their 20s. One assistant is older than me. We like to have fun, but we work hard, too.”
They’ve worked to get past perennial Eastern District powerhouse Spartanburg Methodist, and the Stingers have done it with solid pitching.
“Our pitching staff pretty much carried us through some tough times of the year,” McDonald said. “Trent Autry (6-2) has 111 strikeouts and threw a no-hitter with 16 strikeouts in the Eastern District tournament. He’s been tremendous. Our No. 2 guy has been very good as well, Will Strong (who has committed to East Carolina and is 8-3 and 73 Ks in 66 1/3 innings). Alex Hursey had 11 strikeouts in the championship game and has been really good; he’s signed with Tennessee Tech.”
Jay Causey is the closer and has a 1.11 ERA, averaging a couple of strikeouts per inning. He’s signed with defending NCAA national champion Coastal Carolina, which is about 45 minutes from Florence.
The offense has done its part.
“Our top four hitters make us go,” McDonald said. “Javon Martin is going to St. John’s, he’s had a tremendous year as our second baseman and leadoff hitter, leads us in on-base percentage (.462). Dante Blakeney leads us in home runs (8), doubles (20) and triples (4) in the 2-hole as a freshman. He’s very talented.”
Tyler Anshaw has driven in 62 runs this season, tying the school single-season record in the cleanup spot, and Harrison Hawkins has stolen 26 bases in 31 attempts.
“Our shortstop (Keshaun Samuel) is as good defensively as anybody you’ll find; he made some tremendous plays in the Eastern District to get us out of some things,” McDonald said. “I feel like we can get production out of our lineup, one through nine. We can play some pretty good defense,throw strikes and strike some guys out. That’s been our formula for the whole year.”
Florence-Darlington Tech didn’t have a baseball program until 2005 and the Stingers have slowly made progress toward being able to compete year-in and year-out with the likes of Spartanburg Methodist, a perennial qualifier for the JUCO World Series.
“They’re the king of the area down here. It was nice to dethrone them and see if we can get a seat at the table,” McDonald said.
And although the Stingers aren’t quite sure what to expect when they step on the field Sunday night against McLennan Community College (Texas), McDonald thinks they’ll handle the expected big crowds.
“I’ve heard it’s going to be packed,” he said. “It’s exciting to even think about. I was telling my family at the games last weekend, we’ve been working for this for several years. I’ve missed a lot of vacations with my family, I’ve missed birthdays, dance recitals.
“I’ve missed a lot of stuff and it’s nice to get rewarded for all the hard work we’ve put in, especially our players. They work as hard as anybody, so we’re looking forward to getting out there and seeing how we match up with everybody.”