June 27, 2013 11:10:15 AM
Chris McCullough and Trace Lee already have proven themselves as two of the top junior baseball players in the state of Mississippi.
McCullough and Lee did their best earlier this month to extend that sphere of influence when they participated in the Junior Sunbelt Classic in McAlester, Okla. The Columbus High School juniors joined New Hope High junior shortstop/pitcher Will Golsan as the only local representatives for the annual 10-game tournament against some of the best players from around the country and from Canada.
For McCullough, a first baseman/outfielder/pitcher who was a first-team pick to the Mississippi Association of Coaches' Class 6A All-State team, and Lee, a pitcher/shortstop, was a second-team pick, the trip was as much an opportunity to prove something to themselves as it was to make impressions on the junior and senior college coaches in attendance scouting the event.
"It was a fun experience," Lee said. "It was something I was glad to a part of. It was a blessing for me and Chris to go."
Like McCullough, the showcase was part of a busy
summer for Lee. The rising senior also has spent time working with the Columbus High football team at 7-on-7 camps preparing for the 2013 season. As the team's projected starting quarterback, Lee figures to attract recruiting interest from football coaches. He also is a member of the Columbus High boys soccer team and is athletic enough to play that sport at the next level. It remains to be seen which sport Lee will pursue in college, but he enjoyed the chance to test himself against elite competition. He went 1-0 and pitched five innings in the six-day tournament.
"The competition was wonderful," Lee said. "There were guys who could hit 90-94 mph on the radar gun. There also were guys who could hit it anywhere. It allows you to see how good you are.
"I was kind of nervous because whenever you go out of the state or your own city you always wonder what is going to happens. I felt pretty confident going in because when you have a good team behind you it makes it a lot easier to pitch. ... I think I did well. I had a couple of good outings and one that wasn't so good, but that is baseball for you."
Columbus High baseball coach Jeffrey Cook said the experience was a "big proving ground" for Lee. He said the right-hander stood toe to toe with the top players and proved he could compete.
McCullough said his experience with Christian Dale last July at a four-day showcase in Wareham, Mass., organized by the Baseball Factory gave him confidence he knew he could perform well in Oklahoma. This time, though, he didn't have to get on a plane to travel to play baseball. Still, McCullough went 10-for-19 (.528) with four doubles, seven RBIs, and eight runs scored. His performance came on the heels of a junior season with the Columbus High baseball team that saw McCullough hit .468 with two home runs and 36 RBIs. He also had 16 doubles and 21 walks. He struck out only once.
McCullough admitted he didn't imagine he would have a chance to go to Oklahoma, even after hearing about the trip from Dale and Hunter Mullis, another junior on the Columbus High team who traveled to Oklahoma last season. But McCullough was pleasantly surprised when Cook told him he made the team.
"When I got up there, it was some real good ball," McCullough said. "In Massachusetts, there was a select few going. In Oklahoma, you had all kinds of people from all parts of the country and from Canada."
McCullough also discovered Mullis was right when he said there are some really big spiders in Oklahoma. That didn't bother McCullough, though, who said he just wanted to "play hard and do his team some good." He feels his trip wasn't in vain as he helped the team to a 6-4 record and a sixth-place finish.
Cook, a longtime assistant coach for Team Mississippi that travels to the Junior Sunbelt Classic, said the experience gave McCullough an opportunity to see how he compares to some of the best players in the country. He said McCullough, Lee, and Golsan all proved they belonged.
For McCullough, who pitches, plays first base, and plays in the outfield, it also was a chance for him to broaden his recruiting base. McCullough said he has received interest from schools in the state of Mississippi, but that the tournament gave junior and senior college coaches from other parts of the country to see a hard-hitting, athletic player in action.
"I felt like I had to prove something to myself," McCullough said. "I know if I am here I am going to do pretty well facing the same competition. I felt I had to go up there and make a statement for myself.
"It really did surprise me at how well I did because I am just little old me from Columbus, Mississippi, and all these big-name players and all these people who are committed to places were there, too. I just went out there and did the best I could."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.