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PHCC baseball has Piedmont District ties

April 28, 2014

Facing a late scramble in recruiting, Patrick Henry Community College’s first-year head baseball coach Lucas Jones and first-year pitching coach Casey Hodges had to look no further than the 10275572_752446301453658_3170093294997600760_oPiedmont District.

Jones was hired in mid-June and Hodges came a month before that. As a result, they had to fill the roster with incoming freshman and evaluate the returning sophomores in a third of the usual time.

Jones trusted Hodges to help start the process with his ties to some of the local recruits through American Legion summer baseball.

First, starting outfielders Nic Keister (Bassett High School) and Daymon Totherow (Tunstall High School) were brought in. Then came sophomore returning starting catcher Will Hylton, a teammate of Keister’s at BHS, and starting pitcher Tyler Belcher, a Patrick County High School product.

“I was actually lucky to snag those local guys because we were so late in the recruiting process that we were struggling to find players,” Hodges said.

PHCC has enjoyed its first trip back into the national rankings in several seasons, reaching as high as No. 6 in the April 8 National Junior College Athletic Association Division II rankings. It has since dropped out of the top 10, but it is currently No. 18 — staying in the top 25 for the last month — as the regular season concludes next weekend.

Keister and Totherow make up the middle and right side of the outfield. They played on the same fall-ball team in 2012 coached by Post 42 legion coach Barry Nelson. Hodges also helped coach that team, so he is familiar with those players, as well as Hylton and Belcher who played the season before.

All four have had important roles with the team this season.

“It says a lot for the high school programs in the area. These guys are coming in prepared and ready to play,” said Jones, who played three years at Lynchburg College. “They have the skill set, but that can only take you so far. They’ve had good coaching, too … these guys stick to their roots, play legion ball and don’t necessarily get recruited at bigger schools. That ends up being better for us.”

Keister said he’s enjoyed the transition to the college game so far. He was inserted into the leadoff spot in the batting order and has been playing the same position he did in high school. Keister is currently hitting .274 with 45 hits and 32 runs scored.

While he noted that the speed and style of the game are a little different at the college level, coming from a successful program such as Bassett aided in the transition.

“Limiting runs, keeping base runners from advancing and keeping the double play in order are all things that are more emphasized (in college), unlike in high school,” Keister said. “A lot of these games are close, one-run ball games, and you can look back at not hitting a cutoff, for example, and see how the game could’ve been different.”

Jones said the newcomers and returning players have bought into his team concept in practice and gameday approaches. He said Hylton was chosen for the team’s five-player counsel to act as team leaders. The head coach also said he has been impressed with Hylton’s ability to work with Hodges and the pitchers. The catcher has helped the pitching staff put together a 3.31 ERA per nine innings.

Hylton felt that the team chemistry existed in the fall, and that there was a better sense of togetherness this season heading into the spring, unlike last year. An example of that leadership was in how he moved from the leadoff spot to the middle and sometimes bottom third of the order near the halfway point of the season. He was fine with letting Keister take over, and it abled him to hit with more runners on base, which is more to his strength, he said.

When the Patriots hit the national rankings at No. 9 on March 25, Hylton began to realize the team was capable of something special.

“I think when we were nationally ranked for the first time, that said a lot for coach Jones and the job he’s done this year,” Hylton said. “We hadn’t been ranked in a long time and it shows what he’s doing with the program now.”

Belcher has been the quiet leader of the Patriots’ pitching staff this season, moving from the mid-week starter last season to the opening-game weekend starter. That transition has been a challenge, he said, but he added that Hodges’ expertise has helped him develop more control with all his pitches.

“It’s a lot tougher and you have to be more mentally tough,” Belcher said of the the change in the rotation. “If anything you have to stay focused on each pitch throughout the game. I try to command the zone from the start and work ahead.”

Belcher leads the pitching staff in innings pitched with 622?3 innings and team-high 31 strikeouts.

Totherow has added stability and strength to the outfield. At the plate, the Tunstall graduate is hitting .324 with a home run, six doubles, 34 RBIs and 34 runs scored. Defensively, he has a .945 fielding percentage, four errors and three assistswith 66 put outs.

Totherow Jones’ defense-first approach with producing a winning atmosphere.

“(Coach Jones) has made a huge impact on this team by constantly pushing us harder,” Totherow said. “He’s helped us go from bad to good, from good to great, and always striving to be the next level up.”

Also earning some playing time as a bench player has been Magna Vista High School graduate Dillon Crowder.

The Patriots have their final three-game series of the regular season May 3-4 at Surry Community College. The Region X tournament will be from May 9-13 in Morehead City, N.C.

That tournament’s winner will advance to the 10-team World Series from May 10-18.

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