On March 22, 2001, Kenny Thomas took a business trip that turned out to be a pure pleasure.
The USC Aiken baseball coach traveled across state lines. His first stop was in Richmond County, and his journey continued until he crossed into Columbia County.
Thomas was looking for talent, and he'd come to the right place.
With his Pacers taking a day off from practice, Thomas went to see the Greenbrier High School baseball team play at Westside. After that contest was over, he moved on to Lakeside High School, expecting to see a couple innings of action between Harlem and Lakeside.
Thomas got more than he bargained for, as the Bulldogs and Panthers battled through 16 scintillating innings.
"I remember on the way back home, I told my assistant coach that's as good a high school baseball game as you'll ever see," Thomas said.
With the clock approaching midnight, Thomas offered one more thought: "We have to get some of those guys on our team."
As it turned out, two of the top players Thomas watched that day found their way to Aiken - former Greenbrier star Bradley Key is now a sophomore with the Pacers, while Harlem's Bob Hatcher recently signed to play at USCA after he finishes the upcoming season at Chattahoochee Valley Community College.
Key and Hatcher are just the tip of the iceberg, as Thomas has really tapped into the Columbia County pipeline.
practices pitching with the USC Aiken team.
Photo by Annette M. Drowlette
Greenbrier graduates Nick Wandless and Chris Wilson, who also were in action against Westside on that March day in 2001, currently suit up for the Pacers, while former Evans High School standout Steve Dunham and Augusta Christian School senior Jordan Belcher have signed to play with the Pacers next year.
"Columbia County has been very good to us," Thomas said. "In my opinion, they play as good a high school baseball in that county as they do anywhere in the country."
USC Aiken secured six players during the early signing period in November, including Belcher, Dunham and Hatcher. That trio, along with Key, were part of Columbia County's Dixie Pre-Majors World Series championship team in 1999.
You might say Thomas has found a diamond mine in Columbia County.
"We only lose three seniors next year, so we filled our needs," Thomas said. "We had a great early signing period."
Dunham currently is preparing for his second season as a pitcher at Middle Georgia College, a two-year program in Cochran.
"We just absolutely loved him," Thomas said of Dunham. "He can come in here and be a big-time player."
The same could be said of Belcher, a highly-touted outfielder and pitcher who also is very dangerous at the plate.
Along with those assets, Thomas signed Belcher for another reason.
"From the first time he stepped on our campus, he loved USC Aiken," Thomas said. "That's what excited me about Jordan. He really wanted to come here - and we really wanted him."
Thomas doesn't land every recruit, but he's succeeded often enough to turn the Pacers around in his five years with the program.
Key, a third baseman and pitcher, fields a ball during practice with the team. The Columbia County native practiced with the Pacers recently for the upcoming baseball season.
Photo by Annette M. Drowlette
"When I got here, we were so down, it looked like a long, hard struggle to build back up," he said. "Then I started to realize how many good, quality baseball players we had in the Augusta area. Nobody has tried to push those guys on us. We went out and found them."
The key find might have been Bradley Key. The four-year starter at Greenbrier helped lead the Pack to two state titles. After he signed with USC Aiken, Greenbrier teammates Wilson and Wandless followed suit.
That was no coincidence, according to Thomas.
"I'm not denying the fact that signing Bradley Key hasn't helped us bring in other players," he said. "Bradley is very respected by his peers in Columbia County, so having him here has made a difference."
The difference has shown up on the diamond. USCA used to be a hard sell to recruits, but now it's getting easier for Thomas to lure local talent to Aiken.
While reuniting with high school buddies creates a comfort zone at the college level, there are other benefits that make playing for the Pacers an attractive proposition.
First, there's the competition offered in the Peach Belt Conference, one of the toughest in Division II baseball.
Then there's USC Aiken's new stadium, which is opening soon and will be the premier facility in the Peach Belt.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, USC Aiken is moving up the ladder. Last season, the Pacers finished with a No. 20 ranking in Division II, and the team is up to No. 15 in the pre-season poll this year.
"It's been a chain reaction," Thomas explains. "As the word spreads about our program, it becomes easier to get the next player."
With the Pacers set to open the 2003 campaign on Feb. 1, Thomas is about to become very busy.
But when he can find some free time, he might just wind up in Columbia County, sitting in the stands watching some high school baseball.
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