During the past month or so, it seems like every national sports story involves a Columbia County product or resident. The PGA Tour, Olympic trials, college national championships, you name the sporting event, and Columbia County has a young athlete rising to the occasion.
The national recognition began a few weeks ago when former Greenbrier softball star Kaila Hunt helped lead Alabama to the school’s first national title in softball. Hunt also was named All-SEC and All-American, leading the conference in home runs and RBI.
Well, this weekend brought one story after another involving our athletes.
Nolan Belcher (Greenbrier/South Carolina)
Belcher is coming off Tommy John surgery, which caused him to miss the entire 2011 season, and he has been used sparingly this season. But the former Augusta Christian and Greenbrier star got the call from Gamecock head coach Ray Tanner Monday night. South Carolina was battling Arizona in Game 1 of the College World Series best of three championship series.
Arizona had two men on and just one out when Belcher got the call. The lefty rose to the occasion, even striking out the Wildcats’ top hitter with the bases loaded. Unfortunately, the two-time defending national champions were unable to rally, losing 5-1.
Belcher, who was 47-2 during his brilliant prep career, is a redshirt junior and has one year remaining at South Carolina. Hopefully, this can be a stepping-stone for a huge senior season.
Reese Hoffa (Lakeside/UGA)
I have written about Hoffa a number of times. You will not find a better person to represent the community. He is a gentle giant, one who can put the shot as good as anyone in the world. During the weekend, Hoffa captured top honors at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore.
Back in 2008, Hoffa also won the Olympic Trials, before finishing seventh in the Beijing Olympics. He also made the cover of SEGA’s Beijing Olympics 2008. Hopefully Hoffa will be able to realize his dream of Olympic gold later this year in London.
C.J. Hendry (Evans/FSU)
Hendry was an outstanding prep swimmer at Evans, and had a solid collegiate career at Florida State University. However, her best swimming seems to be in front of her. As I prepare this column, Hendry is in Omaha, Neb., for the Olympic trials in swimming.
While making the Olympic team is a long shot, the fact that she qualified for the trials in three separate events is evidence of how hard she has worked in the year since she finished up her college career.
Vaughn Taylor (Hephzibah High/Augusta State)
Vaughn is not a Columbia County native, but the golfer does make his off-season home here. Taylor was a good high school and college player, but what he has done as a professional has been a bit of a surprise to many.
It has not been a surprise, however, to anyone who followed his amateur career closely. Taylor was one of the hardest workers to ever play at Augusta State. He lived on the course, trying to better his game. I have often told the story of teeing off at a local club when he had just turned pro. Taylor was on the driving range when we teed off. After a five-hour round and lunch, he was still hitting balls as I was leaving.
It is that kind of dedication that has allowed him to win twice on the PGA Tour and earn a spot on the 2006 Ryder Cup Team. This weekend, Vaughn had his best finish of the 2012 season, with a T11 at The Traveler’s Championship. He pocketed more than $132,000 for his efforts, which will go a long way to helping Taylor earn his tour card for 2013.
It is great to see our athletes getting national recognition for their accomplishments. I hope the trend will continue throughout the summer.