Saturday Morning Quarterback

Bulldogs embraced by Lebanon
Jun 7, 2014

 

Growing up in Lebanon some [cough-cough] years ago, it seemed Cumberland College baseball was the biggest spring sports happening here.

As soon as basketball petered out, the Bulldog baseball team took over the sports page.

They won often enough and there wasn’t that much competition for attention. There didn’t seem to be as many high school sports and what there were was held hostage by the often-uncertain weather. Teams didn’t seem to play as many games then as now.

Even at Cumberland, then a junior college, there was baseball and tennis. I covered CU’s first softball game, in 1986 against Austin Peay at the field on Hobbs Avenue.

Seems like Cumberland baseball was the main sport of spring even before Woody Hunt first came to campus in 1977. While Hunt was an assistant under Mickey Englett, the Bulldogs attained a No. 1 national ranking in the junior college poll in 1980. When Englett moved on in 1981, Hunt returned from a year at Belmont to take over the program.

Hunt dreamed big. We’re now seeing how big. The stadium which now bears his name wasn’t there. There was a field, a backstop, bleachers, small pressbox and concession stand.

That didn’t stop him. He used his contacts in Kentucky and Cincinnati to build his ‘80s rosters. He also spent his summers in pro ball as a minor league coach and manager. During the school year, but before baseball season, he coached Cumberland’s women’s basketball team, and then the men’s.

In fact, he’s the only Cumberland coach to ever beat legendary basketball coach Don Meyer and the Lipscomb Bisons, in 1987 when Lipscomb was rebuilding from its championship the year before.

“I was lucky to get that, too,” Hunt said of that win days after Meyer, who died recently after a long battle with cancer, was honored at Lipscomb. Hunt, fresh from a national-championship trip to Idaho, was too swamped to get to the memorial service.

“He was a good friend,” Hunt said of Meyer, who played baseball growing up. “He loved baseball and every time he saw me he wanted to talk baseball, not basketball.”

But it was another Lipscomb legend Hunt looked to when he began building his baseball empire.

Ken Dugan had coached Lipscomb’s baseball team to NAIA championships in 1977 and ’79, The Bisons were No. 1 in 1984 when a photo of four players drinking was sent to either the coach or administration. The players were dismissed and the program was never again the same.

But the Bisons were the area standard then and, even though their baseball philosophies differed, Dugan’s program was the one Hunt wanted his to emulate.

“Running the program like they ran it, with discipline, with hard play – Ken Dugan ran his program the way it should be run,” Hunt said. “He had a great team. People don’t realize what a great coach he was.

“It was so good to beat him in the number of championships.”

But the early years were spent trying to get to where Lipscomb had been. The NAIA World Series seemed as far away as Mars. But Hunt was determined to build the rocket ship to get there.

Robbie Day, John Shouse, Rob Kroell, Joe Modica, brothers Mickey and Rodney Martin, Sean Egan, Darrell Knowles, Bud Willis, Jim McGuire, Gary McClure…

While bringing in the best players he could, he also set about building a facility to attract those players for them to play in.

“My goal was build the best facility I could and build the best program I could,” said Hunt, noting that to build a program, good facilities are a must. “To build the best small college program in the country so people would have us to model after.”

One of my earliest assignments was to cover a Cumberland game against Middle Tennessee State. Hunt was thrown out of the game arguing whether a Texas Leaguer was caught in shallow center field or not. There was no clubhouse to retreat to. So Hunt cooled off while leaning against a John Deere tractor, used to drag the infield, which was parked outside. He was close enough to continue arguing with the umpires had he wished.

But he soon built a clubhouse and where that tractor was parked could no longer be seen from the pressbox. He also built a grandstand behind home plate.

Those stands were pretty full in 1988 when left-hander Tracy Slone induced a ground ball to shortstop Orlando DeMoss to send the Bulldogs to their first NAIA World Series.

…Slone, DeMoss, Steve King, Mike Wheeler, Gary Dayhoff, Tommy Smith, Luis Ruiz, Rob Sanson, Jon Franklin, John White, Randy Conway, Bobby Perna, Steve Wilson…

The community turned out for a barbecue fundraiser to send the Bulldogs to Idaho. That trip was two-and-out, but it was a start.

Unfortunately, it took another five years before the Bulldogs would return to the Series, but when they did, it started a run of five trips in six years with a runner-up, two third-place and a pair of fifth-place finishes. They were closer to that rainbow Hunt, who had been given a photo of a rainbow over the baseball field taken years before, began using as the carrot at the end of the championship stick.

…Mark Purvis, Joe Fushey, Kevin Hite, Greg Gerland, Steve Green, Mark Mills, Ric Balius, Don Loucks, Jody Atwood, Jeff Luttrell…

During that run, the Bulldogs were invited to participate in a Pan-American tournament in Mexico. They met President Clinton and Vice-President Gore during a downpour at Nashville International Airport.

Hunt stepped up his recruiting. He began targeting Hispanic players, among others.

…Marc Suarez, Angel Hermoso, Jr…

The Bulldogs came close to winning that tournament, too, and came home with a trophy which today sits in the lobby of the Jeanette C. Rudy Clubhouse [part of another facility upgrade later]. It looks like an Aztec god.

The Bulldogs endured a drought as far as the World Series is concerned. But they continued to win and great players continued to come through Woody Hunt Stadium [which was dedicated in 1993]. Chris Smith and Pichi Balet transferred from Division I power Florida State for the 2001 season.

Both were power hitters. Smith also had a power left arm. So powerful, pro scouts flocked in even greater numbers to Ernest L. Stockton Field armed with their radar guns. Legendary Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda paid a surprise visit on a Saturday to check out Smith.

But it was the Baltimore Orioles who made Smith a top-five pick in the draft. Unfortunately, Smith’s pro career was over before it began due to an arm injury.

Cumberland’s drought ended in 2004 when the Bulldogs rode a 19-game winning streak to strike the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow with their inaugural national championship.

…Craig Moreland, Derek DePew, Chuck MacFarlane, Donnie Burkhalter, Phillip Cuadrado [or Coodro, as Veterans Field public address announcer Larry Tomlinson called him on a walk-off home run in the super regional], Josh Underhill, Eddie Ortega…

It was the start of four straight Series appearances. Cumberland caught host Lewis-Clark State in the 1996 final before a packed house at Harris Field. To this day, the Bulldogs believe relief ace Adam Tomlinson was squeezed by the plate umpire on a bases-loaded walk in the 11th inning to hand yet another championship to the Warriors.

Luis Martinez was the catcher in 2007 when the Bulldogs went 0-2 in Lewiston, Idaho. He was drafted by the San Diego Padres and eventually became Cumberland’s first, and still only, major-league player. His first MLB hit was a home run. A pitcher from an earlier era, Lester Strode, was a career minor-league player who later made the big leagues as bullpen coach for the Chicago Cubs.

During an ensuing two-year absence from the Series, the grandstand behind the plate was replaced with 500 chairback seats [another 350 or so are set up past the dugouts] while the Rudy Clubhouse was built, adding a lobby, trophy area and coaches offices to the existing locker room and lounge. Also, a new pressbox was constructed with multiple booths for radio, print, game operations and scouts. On the first floor is a concession stand, souvenir shop, restrooms and umpires dressing room [keeping the men in blue from dressing in the lounge outside Hunt’s office].

Once the latest construction project, funded by donations and regular fundraisers – including the Bulldogs working security at Titans games, was finished, Cumberland was back in Lewiston – this time with a vengeance.

The team I consider the best in Bulldog history, and surely as good as any in the NAIA, went 58-9, taking no prisoners along the way to capture its second national championship behind NAIA Player of the Year Matt Greener, pitchers Aaron Wilkerson, Shawn Schaefer and Robert Post, infielder Sam Kikla, outfielder Troy Frazier, catcher David Fanshawe, among many others.

The Bulldogs backslid somewhat the next couple of years. The 2013 team was beset by injuries. So was the ’14 squad. But a lineup change necessitated by one of the injuries actually strengthened the infield defense and Cumberland rounded into form in April.

Hunt said he felt two wins were needed in the conference tournament to snare a bid to the NAIA Opening Round. The Bulldogs won the tournament, then beat favored Missouri Baptist 2 of 3 times in the Opening Round to punch their 12th ticket to Lewiston.

As always, Lewis-Clark State was in the field of 10 as the host. The other eight teams were No. 1 seeds in their Opening Rounds. It was an easy call to slot Cumberland, which was ranked in the preseason and in the final regular-season poll but nowhere in between, as the No. 10 seed.

The Bulldogs went on to flip the field, beating Lewis-Clark State 2 of 3 times to take title No. 3. Unlike in ’04 and ’10, Cumberland lost a game in each of its postseason tournaments to face must-win situations.

… Sam Lind, Chris Hall, Anthony Gomez, Kevin P. and T. Greene, Ricky Coleman, Tyler Anderson…

If the ’10 team was loaded and the ’04 team a mixture of talent and resolve, the ’14 team will forever be known for the intangibles of grit, grind and determination. Hunt said more talented teams didn’t even make it to Lewiston, must less win it all.

“I still have to pinch myself,” Hunt said after returning home. “Are we really the national champions again? It’s so hard to get there and so hard to win it.

“We always got off the mat after a loss… Somebody got a lead, we would come back. Everything was hard for us.”

Each of the champions were welcomed home by a victory parade. It rained – make that poured – on the ’04 champions. The weather was perfect in ’10.

It was a big muggy Monday past but a record crowd turned out to give the Bulldogs a heroes welcome. An addition to past celebrations came inside Hunt Stadium where every seat between the dugouts was filled by parents of current and former players, former players, fans and school supporters.

 “I told our players they were going to be treated royally when they got back,” Hunt said. “They all left saying what a special community this is.

“This town has embraced our ball team, this one here, especially. The support is beyond our imagination.”

County mayor Randall Hutto put the Bulldogs in the same line as Cracker Barrel and the Wilson County Fair as the things Lebanon is most known for.

Cumberland has added sports. There are more high school sports which are being taken more seriously.

But Cumberland baseball has become ingrained in the community over the past three decades. Hunt, a member of [I believe] six halls of fame, has had chances to leave for bigger schools and pro ball. But he stayed here and raised a family, a couple of them really if you count his team. His two sons also played for the Bulldogs and one of them, Ryan, is the third-base coach.

Many players who were recruited to play here from elsewhere have settled here. Most services he needs here can be filled by his players. His eye doctor [Franklin] played for him. His preacher [John Hunn] played for him. Several, including Green, are police officers. I doubt Hunt could even get a speeding ticket in this town. Countless others are in education, including coaching. Luttrell is principal of Watertown High.

“We’ve got a big following,” Hunt said. “It’s all over the country, not just here,” said Hunt, who was flabbergasted when a former player told him the story of another player’s grandfather who passed away during the World Series. The family was at the funeral home, their mourning interrupted by the jumping for joy over championship No. 3.

“We have contact through the internet, email,” Hunt continued.

As much as Hunt would have loved to have won the championship in ’88, would there have been such an outpouring of support a quarter century ago as there was less than a week ago? There were far fewer former Bulldogs then. Hunt has engrained himself to this community even more, making everyone he meets feel important, whether they played for him or not.

Once a Bulldogs, always a Bulldog. And that’s not just players.

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