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HCC Hawks go west, seeking NJCAA World Series title

May 23, 2008|By TIM KOELBLE

The Hagerstown Community College baseball team left for Grand Junction, Colo., on Thursday as one of 10 teams with hopes of winning the NJCAA Division I World Series.

By the time the Hawks take the field for their first game Sunday night, they'll already be assured a spot among the final eight teams.

Due to a quirky layout of the 10-team bracket, two teams will already be out of the double-elimination tournament by the time HCC begins its first-round game against Grayson (Texas) Community College at 9:30 p.m. EDT.

It was somewhat unlikely for the Hawks to make it to this point. In fact, sophomore pitcher Jason Sutherland, who played at Williamsport High School, called it a "Cinderella story."

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"It feels amazing to be there and awesome to be a part of this," said Sutherland, who is 3-2 with a 4.62 ERA. "We knew we had a special group of guys here this year."

The Hawks (40-17) are making their third-ever trip West after posting the program's best-ever season. They bumped out quickly in 1993's double-elimination event and finished fifth in 1970 under coach Cokey Robertson, who is better known in basketball circles than in the dugout.

"This is a great thing for our baseball team, our program, the school and the community," said coach Scott Jennings, who is in his eighth season at HCC.

Others on the team agree with Sutherland's Cinderella analogy, especially since the Hawks lost numerous players to injury -- including top pitchers Ron Tobolski and Dylan Dunne. It forced Jennings and the team to make changes on the fly.

"We didn't spend a lot of time thinking that anything like this could happen," said Jennings. "We were concerned about keeping the team together. It was day-to-day survival, patching things together, especially with the pitching staff. If someone would have told me before the year we'd have this adversity and then make it to the World Series, I'd have said 'No way.'"

The Hawks won the Region XX title with back-to-back wins over Potomac State. They capped the run with the Eastern District crown in a best-of-3 series over Pitt (N.C.) Community College.

Jennings said he has had teams with more talent, but this year's team is better at crunch time.

"It sounds like a cliché, but we really came together as a close-knit team that got along together," said Jennings. "There weren't any off-field issues. They've done everything we've asked them to do. Our slogan became 'Make adjustments, not excuses.' And we didn't dwell on the injuries."

Jennings was unsure exactly what his pitching rotation would be in the World Series, but his rotation remained the same for the Region XX and Eastern District.

If that pattern remains, South Hagerstown graduate Spencer Cromer (7-2, 2.44 ERA) will start on Sunday, followed by Waynesboro graduate Cory Livengood (6-1, 3.99) for the second game on Tuesday. Williamsport graduate Aerik Taylor (4-5, 3.53), who pitched the district clincher, waits in the wings if the rotation changes.

"Everyone will be ready to pitch," he said.

That means others, including Sutherland, Kyle Briggs (9-2, 2 saves, 2.63), Kenny Feigley (0-0, 2.29, 1 save), will be warm.

With the altitude difference in Colorado, the Hawks' 3.68 team ERA could be tested. In one semifinal game last season, the final score was 27-12.

And the Hawks will have to improve on their .260 team batting average in the Eastern District. They were hitting .290 prior to the district series.

"I give Pitt's pitchers the credit for holding us at .260," said Jennings. "The main reason is you're seeing the top starters in a short series and not the 5-6 pitchers like the regular season. We had the two homers in the second game (a 5-4 loss) and Pitt shut us down. That was our weakest offensive game. But we came back with a big inning in the third game."

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