January 28, 2010 9:50:00 AM
HAMILTON -- Dylan Earnest wants an opportunity to play baseball at the highest level in college.
Living in Northeast Mississippi, Earnest is fortunate to have an asset like the Itawamba Community College baseball program. The Indians won the state title last season and have finished among the nation''s top five in the last two NJCAA polls.
Earnest hopes to use that level of competition to help him hone his skills and earn a scholarship to play at a Division I school.
On Wednesday, the Hamilton High School senior made it official when he signed a letter of intent and a scholarship to play baseball at ICC.
The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder was one of six players from the area who signed Wednesday with the Indians.
Also signing Wednesday were Amory High catcher Zach Randolph and Pontotoc High''s Blake O''Callaghan (pitcher), Kaleb Kennedy (pitcher/shortstop), and Jake Smithey (third base).
For Earnest, the opportunity to stay close to home and polish his talents against top competition was the ideal choice.
"They have a great program and most of the guys I have played with or played against them growing up," Earnest said. "It is only about a 45-minute drive from where I live, and after two years I will have a chance to go somewhere else."Earnest said he always has wanted to play baseball in the Southeastern Conference. He feels going to ICC and taking time to develop as a pitcher is the right move for him to help him realize that goal.
Hamilton High coach Lewis Earnest agrees. The veteran coach said Earnest turned down scholarship offers from Division II Delta State and the University of West Alabama to stay a little closer to home.
"He is going to make sure he is ready," coach Earnest said. "Hopefully they will be there if he has a good year or two, or somebody else. I think he is doing the right thing."
Earnest, a left-hander, went 6-2 with a 0.84 ERA last season for the Lions (21-7). He struck out 103 and walked 14 in 58 1/3 innings. His accomplishments earned him First-Team All-Region and All-State honors at the Class 2A level for the second consecutive season.
Earnest stayed busy in the offseason, pitching on the American Legion level with the Pontotoc Red Sox, with Hamilton High''s summer league team, and with the USSSA Mississippi Bandits. He also played in the Cotton States Fall League in New Albany.
Earnest said the extra time on the diamond helped him develop a third pitch, a changeup, to complement his fastball and his curveball.
"One of my goals was to work on finding another pitch and to be able to throw it consistently for strikes," Earnest said of the changeup. I have been working on it since about the 10th-grade. To compete at the college level I am going to have to have a third pitch. It probably was my second best pitch in the fall."
Coach Earnest saw Earnest''s progress late in the summer with the Red Sox, when he threw a perfect game. He said he thought Earnest had a lot better changeup. He said he needed to develop that pitch looking ahead to make the transition to college.
"Especially in college you need three pitches," Earnest said. "It is probably as deadly a pitch to hitters as a curveball. I think when he gets in college they''re going to be able to build him up and put some man weight on him and get him stronger. He already is in the mid 80s with good movement. I think he is going to jump up there near 90 within a year. I think he is going to end up playing at the next level. Hopefully he will get a chance a D I."
Randolph hit .366 (31-for-81) last season for the Panthers. He also had 20 walks and an on-base percentage of .514. He struck out only five times and had eight doubles, two triples, and 15 RBIs.
Defensively, he had a .990 fielding percentage in 162 innings, with 179 putouts and 23 assists. Randolph threw out 9 of 12 runners who tried to steal on him.
"We feel great to have all six of these guys on board with us at ICC," ICC coach Rick Collier said. "Through the years, we have always enjoyed our relationships with the great coaches and players inside our district. There''s no way this program could have accomplished all of its feats, if not for the players from our five-county district, and these six will help us continue our proud tradition."
Collier also has signed Tupelo High middle infielder Kirk Roberts, who hit .345 as a junior.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.