NCAA baseball participants
Jon Clinard (Bradley Central), Junior, IF/OF
Hit .333 with 15 stolen bases in 34 games
Zane Leffew (Soddy-Daisy), Junior, RP
Pitched in 15 innings
Chase Brookshire (McCallie), Sophomore, SP
Went 5-4 with a 3.52 ERA in a team-high 94 2/3 innings with 66 strikeouts.
Dylan Craig (Baylor), Junior, CF
Hit .324 with a team-high six triples
Mott Hyde (Calhoun), Freshman, IF
Started 59 games and hit .288 with four HRs and 46 RBIs
Jarrett Didrick (Calhoun), Junior, OF
Hit .200 in limited action
Dylan Craig and Chase Brookshire were high school rivals, but they’re now history-making teammates.
They’ll be at Vanderbilt tonight when Belmont makes its first appearance in the NCAA baseball tournament after capturing its first Atlantic Sun Conference tournament. The regional game, which starts at 8, is sold out.
“I guess I’m most excited about being in the tournament although I’m obviously excited about playing Vanderbilt,” said outfielder Craig, an all-state player at Baylor.
Craig bats second behind senior captain Derek Hamblen, who lived in Ooltewah before moving with his family to Plano, Texas. His grandparents and many other relatives live in the Chattanooga area.
“This season has been exciting for sure,” added pitcher Brookshire, a former McCallie player. “We’re the first Belmont team to win the Atlantic Sun, and that’s really exciting considering we started the year 3-8 in the conference.”
Craig is thankful for the distraction. The junior is draft-eligible for the first time since signing with Belmont and has been busy filling out questionnaires for 21 of the major league clubs in addition to pre-draft workouts for a couple of teams and deflecting questions about how much money it would take for him to sign.
“I’ve had a good year, but I think I could have had a better year and I’m excited to see what happens,” he said.
Craig has hit .324 while starting 59 of the club’s 60 games. He had a team-high six triples and one home run, which provided a season highlight.
“We were playing at Mississippi State and it was the top of the ninth. We got a runner on and I hit one to the base of the wall for an inside-the-park home run,” he said with a sheepish grin.
Home runs obviously are not the forte for a 6-foot, 188-pound speedster who has yet to commit an error this season. Stolen bases had been one of his major attributes in previous seasons but the third-year starter has just seven to date.
“That’s a part of my game I’d like to improve, but batting in the two hole I often get red lights. We’re playing more situational baseball, but if it means we’re winning I’m fine with it,” he said.
Hamblen is batting .322 with 11 homers, 17 doubles, three triples, 36 RBIs, a team-high 69 runs and 26 steals in 30 tries.
The Bruins are excited about playing Vanderbilt tonight.
“We’ll be facing Sonny Gray, who throws anywhere from 92 to 97 mph, and besides having one of the top pitching staffs in the country they are great at ‘small ball’ offensively,” Craig said.
“It’s awesome,” Brookshire said. “One, we’re excited to be playing in Nashville. We can sleep in our own beds, but we’re playing in a great bracket and we’re opening against a great team.”
Brookshire, because of matchups, will pitch Saturday against either Oklahoma State or Troy, but he isn’t the same pitcher that threw for McCallie.
“He’s definitely throwing a lot harder. In high school he was a little soft, but now he’s throwing in the mid- to upper-80s as a left-hander,” Craig said.
“I definitely have gotten bigger and stronger, even from last year as a freshman. I’ve learned a lot more about pitching. I might be throwing two or three miles per hour faster than I did in high school. It depends on the days. I’m probably 85 to 88 now. When the adrenaline gets going it can happen for anybody,” Brookshire said.
Neither Craig nor Brookshire was overly worried about pressure although they and their teammates are playing in their first NCAA tournament. The team is 2-3 against SEC opponents this season, losing to Vandy 6-2 in February while winning at Tennessee and winning one of three at Mississippi State.
“There isn’t a whole lot of pressure. No one expects us to win a regional. We’re a fourth seed playing out of a mid-major conference. We can be loose and see what happens,” Brookshire said.
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 ...