December 8, 2012 10:39:20 PM
Jake Smith and Dylan Earnest are eager to get back on the mound to make an impression.
Their next steps, though, will only be precursors to an even bigger step.
Last month, the former New Hope High School and Hamilton High standouts signed scholarships to play baseball at the University of North Alabama and Southeastern Louisiana University. Next year, they will prepare for that next step as members of the Itawamba Community College baseball team. If things work out right, Smith could join Earnest in the ICC rotation as part of the state's top rotations.
Smith, Earnest, Ben Hudspeth, of Tupelo, (Mississippi State University), and Tyler Tipton, of Shelbyville, Ky. (University of Kentucky) already have signed to play baseball at four-year schools.
For Smith, a right-hander who can start or close, the opportunity to play at UNA is a great sign, especially after he suffered a stress fracture to his elbow three games into his freshman season at Wallace State C.C.-Hanceville.
"I didn't think it was as bad as it ended up being," Smith said. "I thought I could keep pitching on it, but I went to the doctor two days later and he said if I kept pitching I could shatter my elbow."
Smith admitted the news didn't go over too well, so he decided to take the advice of the doctors. He said it took him a couple of weeks to realize everything was going to be fine and that he just needed time to get healthy. Initially, he thought he might continue his baseball career at Wallace State, but he didn't like the commute, so he investigated opportunities closer to home.
ICC coach Rick Collier was more than happy to talk to him. Collier said Smith wanted to come to ICC out of high school but couldn't because East Mississippi C.C. put him on its protected list. At the time, junior colleges could "protect" players in their districts, which prevented them from going to another junior college in the state if it didn't release them. As a result, Smith opted to go to Wallace State.
Collier said Smith participated in six weeks of fall baseball earlier this year and looked good. He feels Smith could find a spot on the mound or in the outfield. Smith played center field and was a starting pitcher and a closer at New Hope High.
"I hope he does get back to 90-91 mph," Collier said when asked about Smith's rehabilitation from his injury and how it has affected his velocity. "The progress I saw in the fall makes me believe he can get back to where he was. He never did start to go backward at all."
"We will experiment early in the season and he will start some, relieve some, and close some in the first 20 games before we go into division play. We will establish more roles during that time.
Smith said he suffered a partial ligament tear in the seventh grade and nearly had to have Tommy John surgery. The latest injury, though, made him re-evaluate things and appreciate the opportunities he has to continue to play baseball. He is excited about the opportunity to play for Collier and one of the state's top programs.
"I loved Wallace State. They have a great program over there, but that drive was too much for me," Smith said. "I heard a lot about ICC and how good they are and that they are a great program. I think it is going to work out for the best."
As a senior at New Hope High, Smith batted .360 with 32 hits (four doubles, five home runs), 26 RBI, and 21 runs. He also had 11 stolen bases, a .420 on-base percentage and a .573 slugging percentage.
On the mound, he was 6-0 with a 1.47 ERA and 38 strikeouts.
Earnest, a left-hander, was a Louisville Slugger High School All-American at Hamilton. Last season, he went 5-3 with a 4.30 ERA. He led ICC in strikeouts (71) to innings pitched (68) ratio.
Earnest was a key performer in ICC's 39-13 finish and Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) North Division championship. The Indians also advanced to the semifinals of the MACJC State and NJCAA Region 23 tournaments.
But Earnest feels he can do even better. He felt a few bad innings cost him and accounted for his record and ERA. He said he rested his arm in the offseason and slimmed down to prepare for his sophomore season. He is confident he will have a sophomore season that will help get him ready for the Division I level.
"I got stronger (in the offseason) and increased my velocity, so I guess it helped," Earnest said. "I feel good about my offspeed stuff and consistency and command."
Earnest said he didn't lose a lot of weight but that he toned his physique to help him avoid a "dropoff" like he has last season. He said he has worked hard to build confidence in his changeup and his curveball so he can keep hitters guessing.
The good part for Earnest is he won't have to guess where he will go to school. After initially committing to another Division I school, Earnest feels Southeastern Louisiana is a better fit in all facets.
"I like the way they play hard and aggressive and with a lot of intensity," Earnest said. "They play together as a team real well and have great facilities and a great coaching staff. It is a good place to play."
Collier said Southeastern Louisiana offered Earnest a good deal. He said Earnest will get a chance to play against bigger schools, including some in the Southeastern Conference.
"The package Southeastern Louisiana threw in shows how much they want him and believe in him," Collier said. "I have confidence in him to put him out there in any crucial game. He will be our No. 1 or No. 2."
Earnest said he felt he would have another opportunity to go to a Division I school. He said he has a chance to get additional scholarship money if he finishes with a 3.0 grade-point average.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.