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A Whiteville runner inched his way from first base, trying to get a leadoff to steal second base. Glancing at him from the mound was Gavin Lane, a left-handed pitcher for the Southwest Trojans. Patiently, Lane let the runner move farther and farther from first base, then snapped a throw to first baseman Logan Tripp, who tagged out the runner.
From the Trojan dugout, everyone cheered Lane. He perfectly timed the throw for the pickoff. It was an excellent move.
After the cheering subsided, Trojan coach Brett Hickman, standing in the dugout on the first base side of the field, quietly said to his first baseman, “Nice tag, Logan.”
That was Hickman’s subtle way of reminding everyone about teamwork. Hickman knows all about that. He was the shortstop on the 2004 West Brunswick High School team that won the Class 3A state championship. He and Stuart Champion, the catcher on that state championship team, have returned this summer to West Brunswick High School to be part of the coaching staff for the Trojans. (Mike Alderson, who coached that championship team, is the manager.)
Hickman and Champion know the game of baseball, and their advice and tips will be beneficial for these Trojans, many of whom will be playing varsity baseball next year for West Brunswick.
They will hear Champion say, “When you walk between the lines, you should sprint to your position and be ready to play every pitch, whether your down 10-0.”
And they should listen, for there was a time in his college career that Champion was down 10-0, when it seemed as if the game was over for him. He suffered a season-ending knee injury his sophomore year at Louisburg Community College. He then enrolled at UNC Pembroke.
“My junior year (at UNC Pembroke) really wasn’t that good of a year,” he said. “I was out of shape. Didn’t play a lot.”
But Champion persevered, and by the start of his senior year the coaches knew who was going to be their starting catcher. Champion started 44 of UNCP’s 56 games. Champion, who is 5-foot-11, 225 pounds, batted .322, third best on the team. More impressively, he batted .400 when batting with two outs.
He played better and better in the final games of the season. When UNCP was battling for a spot in the Peach Belt Conference playoffs, against the top two teams in the conference, he batted .500.
“This past season toward the end of the season,” he said, “I felt I was really starting to click.”
So did those in the PBC. They voted him Player of the Week.
“The last two weeks of playing was probably the best two weeks I had since my freshman year,” he said.
Since before the knee injury, since before he was facing a 10-0 deficit in his baseball future.
“Right now, I am still trying to continue to play baseball,” he said. “I had a few looks here and there, a few talks. Just trying to get picked up. I’ve had a few opinions from clubs. I’m just trying to get into the league somewhere, whether it be rookie ball, independent ball, single A. I’m just trying to continue my dream and I am going to play until they tell me I’m not good enough to play anymore.”
Hickman, too, is following a dream.
“I tell them every night before they take the field,” he said, ‘Take the field with a purpose.’ ”
Hickman’s life has had that kind of direction, a purpose, even since he could write.
“I can remember writing papers in the second and third grade,” he said, “and all I ever wanted to do was to be a coach. I knew my future was in coaching.”
After he graduated from West Brunswick High School, Hickman played baseball for one year at Southeastern Community College. He then enrolled at East Carolina University, where he is a student assistant coach for the football team as he finishes work on his degree this fall.
“If this (Trojan) team makes the state tournament,” he said, “I will miss it and have to go back for fall camp on July 19—which kind of stinks, because I think we’re good enough to be there.”
Hickman hopes to attend graduate school and work as a graduate assistant for a college football team.
“That business is fickle and people jump around,” he said. “If I have to go to Wyoming to find a G.A. job, I might have to do it. Nothing is holding me back. Everybody I’ve ever had any respect for in coaching is urging me to follow those dreams as long as I can. Who knows what plans the good Lord has for me.”
For now, he is concentrating on helping the Trojans to become better baseball players.
“This might be the last chance I ever to get to be around baseball—and I love baseball,” he said. “I’m enjoying being around the game again.”
The Trojan baseball players should feel the same about Hickman and Champion.
MICHAEL PAUL is the sports editor at the Beacon. Reach him at 754-6890 or at email@example.com