As more and more Columbia County baseball players sign letters of intent this year to play Division I baseball, this has the makings of a banner year.
The common denominator for most of them is their affiliation with Best 9 Sports Academy in Martinez.
Greenbrier senior Rex Davis signed with Savannah State University; Evans senior Bradley Spires signed with USC Aiken; Lakeside senior Kody Belcher signed with Kennesaw State University; and Lakeside senior Heath Durand signed with Georgia Southern. All four have received instruction at the facility run by Robbie Wachman and played on Best 9 showcase teams.
"We don't always go after the most talented players," Wachman noted. "But we try to go after the guys with the best character and the guys we think will make it further than high school. And the guys have done a great job."
In addition, Greenbrier senior Kyler Timmerman will be playing in college in Fall 2011, while Clayton Miller and Zach Hayden, who attended Lakeside, and Jay Aplin, Derek Beasley and Zach Morris, who attended Harlem, signed to play in college after their senior seasons earlier this year.
All of them trained with Best 9, and those are just the Columbia County players. The facility brings in athletes from Aiken to Thomson, Ga., and some have even come from as far as the Atlanta area.
The facility, in the Flowing Wells Industrial Park, features three indoor hitting cages and two dirt pitching mounds.
The staff offers group and one-on-one training and has four showcase teams, from 18-under to 15-under, that travel to tournaments.
Wachman defers the credit, stressing that the players' work ethic pulls them through.
"All we can do is get them in front of the colleges. They've got to perform," he said. "These kids have been doing a good job training, getting strong, and getting themselves out there."
Still, the academy's results in its third year in business speak for itself.
Wachman pitched for four years with the Cincinnati Reds' organization before playing for several years with the Independent League's El Paso Diablos.
He has brought in a number of instructors with current or past experience playing professional baseball. He also works with George Blackburn, a former scout with the Reds for 10 years, whom he met when he got drafted by the organization out of Valdosta State University.
Wachman credits Blackburn with providing local players with connections to potential college programs.
"George is probably one of the best assets for the kids in this area," Wachman said. "He's been doing this for a long time. He has a great deal of passion to get kids into college, and he does a great job.
"He's really the guy behind the scenes that keeps everything rolling."
Blackburn believes an important step in the process is providing players -- and their parents -- with knowledge regarding what to expect.
"There's a lot to learn," he said. "It's so much. You don't know exactly what goes into it until you're in the middle of it. It helps to have somebody to guide you."
Blackburn noted that in the past players such as Rich Poythress and Jeff Rowland, both of whom attended Greenbrier and now play professionally, had to go to the Atlanta area to find a program capable of getting them seen by college coaches.
Now, Blackburn said, Best 9 has become a viable local option.
When Durand signed with Georgia Southern, both he and his mother, Michelle, noted the importance of his playing with the Best 9 showcase team in terms of exposure for colleges.
With Lakeside enjoying so much success last year and the Panthers having a strong pair of senior pitchers, Durand, then a junior, didn't get much time on the mound.
Wachman said some players start as early as age 6 or 7.
Blackburn said Wachman holds high expectations for all of his players and doesn't "dumb it down" to make it easier for younger ones.
Kevin Hyatt, an eighth-grader at Lakeside Middle School, has been training with Wachman for more than two years.
"He's got a nice facility in there," Hyatt said. "It's growing ... and it's going to keep on growing. Kids used to go to East Cobb from around this area, but they don't have to travel that much anymore."
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