May 30, 2014

Former Catamounts aim to guide Eagles to deep run in postseason

Three years ago, Stryker Brown and Garren Palmer were freshman on a Georgia Southern University baseball team playing in the NCAA tournament. As Brown said, they were just “along for the ride.”

Now the Eagles are back, and the pair of Dalton High School graduates are playing a big part in determining how long the “ride” will last.

Georgia Southern is coached by another Dalton High School graduate, Rodney Hennon — Brown’s uncle — and is one of three schools representing the Peach State in the 64-team tournament, which begins today with the Regionals round.

There are 16 regionals, each with four teams, hosted by a No. 1 seed. The double-elimination mini-tournament concludes Monday, followed by the best-of-three Super Regionals. Following that, the eight remaining teams converge on Omaha, Neb., the annual site of the College World Series, another double-elimination tournament and the pinnacle destination for Division I college baseball players.

“It’s definitely an exciting experience,” said Palmer, recalling his previous tournament appearance. “When it comes to playing in May and moving on to postseason play, it’s what you want. It’s fun to experience the ride of the postseason.”

After winning the Southern Conference tournament and claiming an automatic berth, Georgia Southern (39-21) is slotted as a No. 4 seed in the Tallahassee Regional — a 4 1/2-hour drive from the Eagles’ home in Statesboro — and will play site host Florida State (43-15) at 6 p.m. today. Kennesaw State (37-21), a No. 3 seed, will play second-seeded Alabama (34-22) in the regional’s other first-round game at noon today.

Georgia Tech, which won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, is the third team from Georgia in this year’s NCAA tournament and is a No. 3 seed in the regional hosted by the University of Mississippi. Georgia Tech (36-25) plays No. 2 seed Washington (39-15-1) at 4 p.m. today.

Brown graduated from Dalton High School in 2010, a year after Palmer. They combined for five appearances on The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Baseball Team. Brown, a shortstop in high school, was a three-time selection. Palmer, a catcher, was chosen as a junior and senior, and he was also the Player of the Year both times.

They signed with Georgia Southern to join Hennon, who graduated from Dalton High School in 1989. Hennon is in his 15th season leading the Eagles. In each season under Hennon — save a 27-32 finish last year — the program has won at least 30 games. The Eagles have also claimed five Southern Conference tournament championships with Hennon at the helm (in 2000, 2002, 2009, 2011 and 2014).

“They’ve all been different and they’re all sweet,” Hennon told The Statesboro Herald following the Eagles’ 4-3 win against Samford in this year’s tournament championship.

In 17 total years as a head coach — he coached two years at Western Carolina prior to taking over Georgia Southern’s program — Hennon has a 620-401-1 record.

“I chose to go to Georgia Southern,” Brown said, “because I felt of the schools interested in me, it was one of the best chances I had to play for a championship team and the best chance to make a run in the NCAA tournament.”

Brown started some games for the Eagles as a freshman and became a regular starter by his sophomore season. This year, Brown has made 56 starts and has a .325 batting average, 10 home runs and 44 RBIs, all ranked second among Georgia Southern starters. At the end of February, Brown was named Southern Conference Player of the Week for hitting .412 with two homers and 10 RBIs. While he has played several positions over the years, Brown is listed as an outfielder on the team roster posted on the school’s official website (gseagles.com).

Palmer, who has played first base and in the outfield while also seeing time at designated hitter, was redshirted as a freshman in 2010 and earned spot starts during his first three years before starting more than a third of this year’s games. He’s batting .295 in 36 games this year, 21 of them starts, with five home runs and 22 RBIs.

College has been a valuable experience for Palmer on the diamond.

“I have a better comfort level and understanding of the game,” he said. “Small things are different as far as the mental game. I feel you learn to really enjoy the time you have left. You don’t take it for granted.”

In 2011, Georgia Southern won the Southern Conference tournament and was the No. 4 seed in the University of South Carolina’s Regional. The Eagles lost 2-1 in the opening round to the Gamecocks before ending the year with a 5-2 loss to North Carolina State.

Brown said the 2011 trip to the NCAA tournament was more about that year’s upperclassmen.

“It’s always special and just a blessing and an awesome opportunity any time you get to the NCAA Regional,” he said. “My freshman year I was just along for the ride more than I am now. It was still awesome to play against some of the best players in the country and in front of huge crowds.

“This year is still awesome but (with) a different role, being a senior. We’ve kind of taken ownership of the team. We’ve taken more of the load getting to the regional.”

The Eagles bounced back from a 3-2 loss to Appalachian State in the opening round of the Southern Conference tournament, winning five straight games to secure the title and emerge as red-hot underdogs heading to the NCAA bracket.

“Every team is a good team so we go out there and try to play our best baseball,” Palmer said. “We feel if we can go out there and play our best baseball, we can win on any given day.”

Brown agreed that Georgia Southern could surprise a few people. But the Eagles are surely playing the role of small school happy to see its “name flash on the board,” as Brown said in reference to last weekend’s televised tournament selection show.

“It was exciting,” he said. “Everyone in the room was cheering.”

Could they be cheering all the way to Omaha and giving Dalton High School a presence in the College World Series?

“It has always been my goal and as well as any other college player to make it to Omaha,” Brown said. “I think that’s our goal and expectation this year, and anything short will be a letdown.”

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