June 9, 2002
By Wes Durham, Voice of the Yellow Jackets
You can’t script out things in college athletics. There are just too many factors that could come into play. That’s why some teams who are expected to reach the top might not make it. The reversal of that can occur as well, and sometimes Cinderella gets fitted for the glass slipper.
When February rolled around, Georgia Tech was considered very young, not really a team that could contend for a spot in the College World Series. But remember, you can’t script things out in college athletics.
The fact that nobody was expecting this campaign to end in Omaha probably makes the trip sweeter for not just the players, but especially head coach Danny Hall. In his nine seasons at Tech, Hall has taken a program that was put in place behind the efforts of Jim Morris and now has elevated it to where it does all the things that you would expect from a proven program.
This spring, Tech not only welcomed three new assistants, 17 new faces, but also a reconstructed Russ Chandler Stadium. It made for quite a combination to pull together for Hall, who had always said that if the Jackets could add a premiere playing facility to their other program elements, it could produce quick returns.
“You have to give Danny credit. He always used that movie line, ‘if you build it, they will come’ as the sounding board during our stadium plans. He knew that a ballpark could be the turning point in our program,” saidd Tech director of athletics Dave Braine.
The fifth largest crowd in ballpark history (4,022) watched the Jackets punch their ticket for Omaha against Florida Atlantic. A supportive home crowd during the NCAA has been just one of the pieces in Tech’s run to the College World Series.
But this trip to Omaha for Hall is much different than the first one in his debut season of 1994.
“I was hired in December and we were pre-season number one. I said that if we didn’t go then, it would be because the coach screwed them up,” Hall joked after his team beat Florida Atlantic last Saturday night.
There have been chances to go since 1994, but the Jackets couldn’t clear the last hurdle. After their ACC title in 2000, many expected that team could return, but after rolling through the sub-regional, Tech ran into pitchers Rik Currier and Mark Prior of Southern Cal. Last season, the Jackets were highly-ranked early but a February broken ankle befell all-America third baseman Mark Teixeira, and some other injuries took Tech out of play.
In 1996 and 1998, the Jackets got to the regional finals against LSU and Arizona State respectively, before falling.
This year’s team has a unique combination of three seniors and talented young players who have come together behind the leadership of Hall and his revamped coaching staff.
“I can’t say enough about the staff. They have been a major positive,” Hall noted.
Associate head coach Bobby Moranda, a 16-year assistant coach, left a Wake Forest team that has won three of the last four ACC titles to join Hall in Atlanta. His expertise with pitchers has been evident this spring.
Hall also welcomed back a former volunteer coach at Tech who had cut his teeth full time at Vanderbilt, Scott Stricklin, to serve as the other full-time assistant and recruiting coordinator. The third piece to the puzzle was getting another former ACC player, Jon Palmieri of Wake Forest, to come on board as the volunteer coach.
For Hall, all the new ingredients matched perfectly to his club that was returning.
“Bobby has been super and ‘Strick’ took a chance on coming back to join us,” said Hall, who earned his 600th career victory against Georgia on June 1. “As things ended up at Vanderbilt, he would be unemployed right now if he hadn’t returned. To then add Jon to the staff when he had a lot of options in coaching meant a great deal to me. I’m just glad that we now have a chance to finish this season in Omaha,” Hall said.
From all indications, the goals of this Tech team were modest. Fifth-year senior Matthew Boggs told the coaches in the fall that he just wanted the team to be better than last year’s team. Their attitude was the part that has made this team special.
Senior outfielder Wes Rynders had been a three-year starter for the Jackets. The Marietta native was beaten out in the spring by freshmen Brandon Boggs for his starting spot. But rather than write off his final spring with Tech, Rynders has become the emotional leader of this club.
“When we got swept at FSU in April, he wasn’t in the lineup, yet he was the guy keeping them together. All along he knew that if he was patient he would end up getting a chance,” Stricklin said after the regional final.
Rynders not only got the chance, he worked his way back into the starting lineup in mid-May and was named All-ACC Tournament. He has followed that up with steady play in the regionals.
While Rynders and Matthew Boggs did the things that you essentially need for successful teams, senior shortstop Victor Menocal not only provided the leadership but eventually the playing respect that many had projected for him since his arrival.
Menocal, a sixth round pick of the Braves out of Gainesville High School, hit under .200 as a rookie, but has gradually gotten better each season and in his final season, became the steady bat for the Jackets and its designated “grizzled old veteran.” He was named the Outstanding Player of the sub-regional, when Tech beat Coastal Carolina and Georgia twice to advance.
Some of those 17 new faces also came into play this spring as well. Right fielder Jeremy Slayden set a freshmen record for home runs, while second baseman Eric Patterson has stolen his way into the record books producing one of the best single-season marks in school history.
When you tally all the numbers and factors, it made for some surprising success.
The change from one season to the next was one that Hall was looking for following the sour ending of a year ago. His coaching instinct took over and soon after Mike Trapasso accepted the head coaching job at Hawaii, Hall made the moves to rejuvenate the Jackets.
A new stadium, new players, new staff and above all, new attitude.
“We were known as underachievers. I thought we had a ‘country club’ mentality, where we had a lot of stars, but could not achieve the goals. I think this was a good time to make the move to get things done,” Hall said.
Stricklin might know Hall better than anyone else connected with the baseball program at Tech. He played for him at Kent and has now coached with him on two different occasions. He sensed that the change was coming in the program.
“There was some controversy about not making the World Series with high-profile players,” Stricklin said. “But to follow last year and build it back has earned the respect of his players and coaching peers. The players especially like to play for him and, thus, they play very hard.
“I think I have the best perspective on this, and I would hope that those who were easy to criticize him will be as easy to praise him for what has transpired this season.”
Tech’s appearance in the College World Series will be their second in history, both under Danny Hall. The Jackets have won 50 or more games four times in their baseball legacy. Three of those campaigns have come under Hall.
In terms of the way the Jackets will handle the Omaha experience this time, Hall has some things he wants to double-check on.
“I know that the media attention on the event is much greater than it was in 1994. So I want to talk with some friends who have been there recently to make sure I can prepare our players for that part of it. Once we get a good grasp on things prior to the start of the tournament, then the goal is for everybody to be comfortable and win some games.”
Draft to Make Off-Season Interesting
Major League Baseball conducted their amateur draft on June 4-5. Once again, current Tech players and incoming freshmen were in the mix. Of the current players, junior first baseman Jason Perry was the highest selection going in the sixth round to the Toronto Blue Jays. Two rounds later, junior catcher Tyler Parker was taken by St. Louis. It is expected that both players will forego their senior seasons for pro ball.
Three other juniors were selected. Pitcher Chris Goodman was a 16th round pick of Florida. Reliever Jeff Watchko was tabbed in the 18th round by Pittsburgh, while spot starter Philip Perry was taken in the 48th round by St. Louis. Senior shortstop Victor Menocal was picked in the 15th round by the Philadelphia Phillies.
Tech’s incoming freshmen class had six players taken in the draft.
Traditionally, players taken in the first five rounds are toughest to keep on track for college, but recruiting coordinator Scott Stricklin says that there are different thoughts with each one this year.
“It will be hard to keep a couple of the high picks, but we do have some interesting situations to work with,” Stricklin said.