When they boarded the bus Thursday for Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis, Chattanooga State’s baseball Tigers had an unbeaten pitcher, one of the nation’s RBI leaders and a No. 2 national ranking.
It has been that kind of follow-up for coach Greg Dennis’ team, which got to the NJCAA Division I tournament last year for the first time.
“You have to hope you find a pretty penny every now and then,” Dennis said, “but we think we work pretty hard and our kids do things the right way.”
The Tigers’ Dylan Coleman is hitting .470 with 47 runs batted in, which is third-best among NJCAA hitters, and pitcher Patrick Merkling, a former Auburn signee, is 7-0 with 57 strikeouts and a 1.93 earned run average in 47 2/3 innings. Max Aeschlimann is 4-0 and Seth McClure is 5-1 in the team’s 30-4 start.
The team batting average is a gaudy .361, and the staff ERA is a very respectable 2.66.
“Greg has very high expectations regarding the level of play,” said Joe Wingate, a Tigers assistant along with Robert Long, a former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher. “Our guys are going to be giving the same amount of effort in the eighth inning as in the second.”
Dennis’ style of play has been called grinding and relentless, and his style starts from the time a player enrolls through the classroom and onto the field, whether the Tigers are practicing or playing a game.
“It is a different atmosphere,” said Coleman, formerly a standout at McMinn Central. “There is no time for slack. You go hard and you work for what you get. I never ran as much, and I have never worked as hard.”
Said Wingate: “Greg is old-school, and when he’s hard-nosed it is most often about basics — ‘If you’re going to play, take pride in what you do.’ It isn’t throwing or running or swinging as hard as you can but taking pride in your craft and doing it the right way.”
In Tuesday’s 3-2 exhibition loss to the Chattanooga Lookouts, the Tigers scored a run in the first inning and had an opportunity to get a couple more in the second.
“We went into that game expecting to get something out of it — not necessarily winning but gaining something,” Wingate said. “Greg’s expectations are always there to play the game to the fullest regardless of the talent level of the competition.”
Those expectations have assured Dennis of his eighth consecutive winning season, and he is far from the only one slipping on a Chattanooga State jersey with high expectations.
“The road will be tough, but I think we can go back to the nationals,” Coleman said.
Coleman never hesitated when asked if he would repeat his decision to attend Chattanooga State if he knew as a high school senior what he now knows.
“I might have been a little more scared, but I think it takes a coach like [Dennis] to make a team better,” he said.
Asked how he would describe the Tigers’ program, Coleman said: “Fundamental baseball. Nothing fancy, but we have a never-give-up program.”
Chattanooga State has reached new plateaus through that philosophy. The Tigers had a No. 1 national ranking and fell one win short of the national tournament in 2008 and then took that next step to Colorado last year.
“It’s been hard work,” Dennis said. “We have been bringing in really talented players that have bought into our philosophy. It also takes some luck in recruiting — we have fallen into some pretty good players, and we have recruited some players that are better than we might have thought originally — but there’s no substitute for hard work, avoiding the short cuts and doing things the right way.”
Baseball the Dennis way is a structured and disciplined environment. He knows most of his players see Chattanooga State as a stop along the road to higher goals, and he endorses those thoughts.
“We’re creating a situation where we are that steppingstone, whether it’s on to the pros or a four-year program,” he said.
The Tigers have 12 sophomores, and he believes at least 10 will move on to a higher level.
“You try to bring in guys who want to get better, get their game stronger and then move on to the next level, but it’s a work in progress,” Dennis said. “Guys we’re looking for are guys who realize if they work hard they create opportunities for themselves.”
He believes another national-tournament trip is possible.
“There are no secrets. Ask the Butler [basketball] coach,” Dennis said. “You peak at the right time. Last year we played well most of the year, but we got to the postseason and played really well.”
Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...