The Bucs are back: Chatt Valley relying on JUCO returnees in third straight trip
Third time’s the charm, hopefully, for Chattahoochee Valley Community College and coach Adam Thomas.
The Alabama school clinched its third consecutive berth to the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series by winning the Southern District tournament and did it with a pitching staff with an unusual amount of JUCO experience.
Last season, with the Pirates’ top three pitchers injured, Thomas turned to a handful of freshmen.
Two of those pitchers are now key starters this season and a handful more populate the bullpen.
Chase Burks, who logged a team-high 81 innings this season, threw four innings without allowing a run during last year’s JUCO World Series. Jordan Lee, the team’s second starter with 71 2/3 innings pitched, also pitched four innings at Suplizio Field.
Several others pitched at JUCO and Thomas said he appreciates how much that experience has helped the team.
“I’ll tell you, the last month of last season was a trial by fire for our guys,” Thomas said. “It turned some really good pitchers into great pitchers. Burks, Lee, (Christian) Vann, (Logan) Haner. They were all here and we added Chase Atkins into our rotation. It’s not too shabby having that in Grand Junction.
“Honestly, this is the loosest I’ve been in a big-tournament situation because of the horses we have out there. Last year, our top three arms were in the stands, but watching these guys develop in Grand Junction last season was huge for their progress this year.”
And, as Thomas puts it, it’s hard to describe JUCO to someone who has never been to the tournament. Experience is key there, too.
“You can’t really tell them anything,” Thomas said. “All I’m going to tell them is wait for the drive from Denver. When you get over the Continental Divide, start taking mental pictures. Trying to describe what happens here is kinda like trying to describe heaven or hell. You can’t, really, unless you’ve been there. There’s not way to do it justice.
“It’s like being a kid at Christmas, coming here. Outside of family, this is going to be one of the top memories we’re going to share for the rest of our lives.”
The Pirates’ pitching staff has a 2.66 ERA, second-lowest among JUCO qualifiers.
In the batter’s box, Chattahoochee Valley has some pop.
Will Campbell, a sophomore outfielder, has 18 home runs, second-most among players at JUCO and tied for 17th nationally.
Campbell, who’s hitting .438 this season, was the Pirates’ top hitter at JUCO last year. In the 2015 tournament, Campbell had six RBI, tied for the team lead, and hit .385 with three doubles and one triple.
The Vanderbilt recruit and likely MLB Draft pick also has a team-high 77 RBI.
Thomas said this lineup, top to bottom, is pretty similar to the past two years. There’s a good mix of power, contact and speed.
“I don’t know that we’ve really built a special piece to our culture or anything,” Thomas said. “It just kinda becomes the same team personality every year because of the kids we sign. Last year’s team was just as much fun as this year’s team, and just as talented. We’ve had some pretty special guys here the past few seasons because they buy in and believe in what we’re doing.”