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#STINGDAILY: Homecoming Weekend

May 31, 2013

Jon Copper, Sting Daily –

Vanderbilt should expect to have quite a home-field advantage as the host school in this weekend’s NCAA Tournament Nashville Regional.

That’s understandable. They were 31-4 during the 2013 season at Hawkins Field.

However, when second-seeded Georgia Tech opens the Regional against third-seeded Illinois this afternoon beginning at 2:00 p.m. ET (1:00 p.m. local time) there will be at least two players on their roster that won’t necessarily see what the big deal is.

Senior third baseman Sam Dove and freshman right-hander Jonathan King won’t be intimidated by Hawkins Field, as not only are they from Tennessee, they have played on the field.

They will experience the usual pregame butterflies — Dove’s coming Friday, King’s arriving some time Saturday or Sunday depending on how the draw goes — but any extra ones would more likely be caused by this being Dove’s last NCAA Tournament and King’s first than due to the local fans’ enthusiasm.

They’re likely to have plenty of friendly faces.

Georgia Tech Head Coach Danny Hall hopes so.

“Dove kind of grew up right outside of Nashville and King is closer to Murfreesboro so I’m sure they’ll have a lot of family and friends in there to watch them play,” he said. “It’s kind of nice that they get to go back home to Tennessee to play.”

Nice is an understatement.

“It’s exciting. It’s the first time I’ll be playing that close to home, so it’s going to be a lot of fun,” said Dove, who is a career .300 hitter (10-for-30), with a homer, a double and three RBIs in eight career NCAA Tournament games. “I’ve got some old friends that play for Vanderbilt and, of course, a bunch of family and friends from back home, so it will be real exciting to play there.”

Dove grew up in Brentwood, a little more than 10 miles from the Vanderbilt campus, and played his high school ball at Brentwood Academy. In those days he played shortstop, finishing his career batting .496 with four homers and 34 RBIs with 29 stolen bases, and leading the school to back-to-back Div. II AA State Championships.

He remembers Hawkins Field from the summer of 2010.

“After my freshman year here I played summer ball there and that was our home field. So I’ve played there a good amount,” he said. “I’d say it’s pretty neutral. I know they added turf this year. So it’s a little bit faster than when I played there. So I feel like more balls will probably get through the infield but I think it’s a good place for us to hit and pitch.”

King hopes that the latter is especially true when he takes the mound. The freshman, who grew up in Murfreesboro, about 30 miles away, will see the mound one day this weekend. He’s excited to get to show his wears in front of the home crowd.

“It’s pretty cool to get to go pretty close to home, get to see some family members that I haven’t seen in a while,” he said. “I’ve played there a couple of times when I was younger. I went to a couple of camps and stuff. It’s a nice park. They’ve renovated it lately. It’s a really nice place.”

King starred at Riverdale High School, where as a senior he was named the Gatorade Player of the Year for Tennessee high school baseball and earned Louisville Slugger honorable mention All-America honors, All-Region honors and was the District Player of the Year. King led the team to the 7-AAA district championship title and a Region 4 title his senior season. King went 11-1 with a 0.65 ERA, 96 strikeouts and 17 walks. He also hit .398 with 10 home runs.

While King hasn’t been that devastating on the mound in his first collegiate season, he has become a reliable and valued arm in Tech’s weekend rotation. He’s allowed six earned runs over his last four starts covering 21 2/3 innings (a 2.49 ERA) and has gone at least six innings three times. In the ACC Tournament he went 6 1/3 innings allowing three earned runs on nine hits, dropping a tough 3-2 decision to eventual runner-up Virginia Tech.

“He’s throwing real well. He’s hitting his spots well, he’s very composed up there, especially for a freshman, which I have been really impressed with,” said Dove. “He’s given us some really great starts when we needed them.”

Neither player was recruited by Vanderbilt, which will add some fuel to both of their fires, although it’s likely that only Dove will face the Commodores — Buck Farmer will go Saturday if the Yellow Jackets beat Illinois and face Vanderbilt in the winner’s bracket game.

Dove insists there are no hard feelings about not being recruited but admitted there is a part of him that would like to show the Commodores what they could have had.

“I guess so,” said Dove, with a laugh. “I know [Vanderbilt] Coach [Tim] Corbin a little bit and everything’s good there. I’m just excited to get back and play against those guys, definitely.”

A bigger problem for Dove and King might be fulfilling ticket requests from family and friends.

“I’m sure [requests] will be more than I can get,” said Dove.

“I’ll get my parents first and my brother and my sister and make sure they get their tickets,” said King, kidding that he might have to rely on the kindness of teammates for any more. “I may have to ask a couple of them. I don’t know how generous they’ll be.”

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