January 17, 2010 12:33:00 AM
A talented class of senior baseball players at New Hope High School made its first mark on the college game Friday afternoon.
East Mississippi Community College''s Tony Montgomery and Wallace State College''s Randy Putnam hope to be the beneficiaries.
Montgomery signed infielder Philip Tice and pitcher/catcher Jake Upton to scholarships, while Putnam added pitcher/outfielder Jake Smith to the fold for the 2010-11 season.
All three players had integral roles last season in helping New Hope (25-11) advance to the Class 4A North Half State title series, where it lost to eventual state champion West Lauderdale in three games.
This season, the Trojans hope to take the next step with a new coach (Lee Boyd) and a senior-laden roster. But with the start of the season less than a month away, Smith, Tice, and Upton took care of the next step in their baseball careers so they will be able to focus on their final season in high school.
Smith played in all 36 games last season and saw the majority of his action in center field. He hit .286 with 26 hits (three triples), scored 23 runs, and had 16 RBIs. He also was 1-0 with a 3.87 ERA in five games (one complete). The 5-foot-11, 165-pound right-hander struck out 21 in 12 2/3 innings.
Wallace State, a Division I two-year school in Hanceville, Ala., went 38-13 last season and was ranked in the top 10 of the national rankings for most of the season.
"We''re extremely excited about it," Putnam said. "I can tell he comes from a great family, and we''re expecting great things from him."
Putnam is excited about Smith because he feels he has signed a versatile player who will get an opportunity to contribute as a pitcher and as an outfielder. He said it took Smith six pitches for him to know he had to recruit him. The school''s combination of a strong baseball program, facilities, and atmosphere sold Smith.
"It wasn''t too far away from home, but it was kind of far away from home," Smith said. "I liked the environment, and they like to win.
"I love baseball. It is my favorite sport to play. I am glad I am going to the next level to play, and, hopefully, further."
Putnam said Smith could emerge as a starting pitcher, even one who will get the ball for three-game conference series, which are typically played at the end of the week and on weekends.
"He''s a great athlete, and I like for my pitchers to be great athletes," said Putnam, who has a lot of sophomore pitchers on the 2010 roster. He said he plans to sign five pitchers to restock his team''s depth.
Tice, a second-team All-State pick last season in Class 4A, played second base for the Trojans in 2009. This season, he said he will play shortstop. A year ago, he played in 36 games and paced the Trojans with a .496 batting average. The 5-9, 160-pounder also led the team in hits (59), total bases (71), RBIs (44), stolen bases (13), slugging percentage (.597), and on-base percentage (.556).
"I went down there and enjoyed it," said Tice, who also considered Delta State and Shelton State (Ala.). "I just felt at home there. I just want to play my hardest both years and go somewhere from there."
Last June, Tice represented the state of Mississippi at the Junior Sunbelt Classic in McAlester, Okla.
Upton split time at catcher and pitcher in 32 games last season. He hit .250 with 16 hits (three doubles), scored 10 runs, and had 12 RBIs. He was 3-4 with a 3.10 ERA in 17 games (three complete). The 5-8, 160-pound right-hander struck out 70 in 49 2/3 innings.
All three players were members of the State Games of Mississippi District 4 baseball team and the New Hope Dizzy Dean team last year.
"I has been my goal to get college scholarship," Upton said. "It is what I have worked and set my goals to. They made me feel at home, recruited me hard, and made me feel like I was wanted. They had a rebuilding year last year and have a bunch of good talent coming back this year. I think they have a good chance in a couple of years to do something."
Montgomery, who is from Columbus and was a member of the 1991 state title team at New Hope High, signed many of the top players from the area last season, including New Hope''s Hilton Gibson, Caledonia''s Tyler Aldridge, and Heritage Academy''s Cole Vaughan. He said the addition of Tice and Upton gives his program a fast start for the 2010-11 season. The Lions went 11-37 (6-17 North Division) last season.
"If they do everything like they''re supposed to, they''re going to come in from the get-go and help us out," Montgomery said. "To get these two this early is a special day for us."
Montgomery believes Tice will be able to transition from second base to shortstop. He also feels Upton has the potential to step in and see immediate playing time at catcher. He knows both players are hard workers, which will help them adjust to the next level.
"Not only are they good athletes, but everybody I talked to tells me they are guys who are going to make me stay real late at the field," Montgomery said.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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