West Lincoln seniors Paul Finger and Johnathan Wise have been teammates since they were in the seventh grade, so it was fitting they announced where they would continue their baseball careers together at the same time.
Finger and Wise were joined by their parents, Rebels head baseball coach Allan Chapman and assistant coach Jeremy Peeler at West Lincoln High School to make their intentions known.
This past weekend, Finger went to a showcase at Tusculum College to demonstrate his skills. It didnâ€™t take long for Tusculum head coach Doug Jones, entering his ninth year, to recognize his talent.
â€œOf all the infielders (incoming freshmen), heâ€™s probably the most versatile of all the kids we saw this fall. We think he can play all three infield spots. After meeting with him, I found out he was a very competitive kid, and had a good makeup,â€ Jones said.
Jones followed up his initial gut feeling with a call to longtime friend Bobby Dale Reynolds, who he got to know while he was an assistant at Garner-Webb University, to see what he took away from coaching Finger this past summer as part of Post 100â€™s legion team.
â€œIâ€™ve known Bobby Dale for who knows how long. I called him and he told me all the same things that we thought. That kind of sold us again on him,â€ Jones said.
Finger, who batted .370 with 31 hits, nine doubles, three triples, a homer and 14 RBIs last season on his way to Midwest 2A All-Conference honors, signed Tuesday as part of the early signing period.
Making the three-hour trek up I-40, Finger was rewarded, as it was love at first sight the second he saw the baseball facilities Friday at Tusculum.
â€œI really enjoyed it (the showcase). Me and mom went up there Friday night and I just fell in love with the field,â€ Finger said.
Tusculum enjoyed its finest season in school history last year, posting a 44-17 record and advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in the past three years.
Chapman believes Fingerâ€™s early decision will allow his infielder to just focus on the game, instead of trying to impress college scouts.
â€œPaul has played on travel teams for four years and really loves the game of baseball. To be able to go into this season, knowing itâ€™s not going to be his last, I think it means a lot to him,â€ Chapman said. â€œIt relieves a lot of pressure,â€ Finger added, of his early decision.
While Finger wonâ€™t be on a full-ride scholarship, Jones said the Pioneers are giving him the most money theyâ€™ve given any freshman over the last several seasons.
He also expects Finger will play immediately, pointing out his aforementioned versatility and quick bat speed.
Wise signs with Mars Hill
Wise, an outfielder, hit .310 with seven doubles and 13 RBIs as junior.
Dedicating himself to the weight room, gaining 10 pounds of muscle and improving his effectiveness at the plate, Wise had a torrid fall, hitting .519 (14-for-27) with four homers and 15 RBIs.
And while both are looking forward to their final prep season, theyâ€™re also relishing the moment theyâ€™ve waited for ever since they were little kidsâ€”playing college baseball.
â€œIt feels great just to be able to keep your career going. Itâ€™s been my dream ever since I started playing in optimist. Itâ€™s a great thingâ€”not many people get the opportunity to do that,â€ Wise said.
â€œIâ€™ve always wanted to play at the next level, not everybody gets the chance to. I want to thank Coach Chapman, Coach Peeler and Coach Reynolds for helping me become a better player,â€ Finger said.
Chapman feels after all the hard work theyâ€™ve put forth, theyâ€™ve earned that right to take time to really appreciate the realization of their dreams.
â€œJohnathan and Paul are tremendous young men,â€ he said. â€œJohnathan has overcame a lot and has probably developed more than any player Iâ€™ve ever coached,â€ he added.
For the Rebels, the two signings mark 11th and 12th player to use baseball as a vehicle to get a college education since 2000â€”this is no mistake (rather by design).
â€œCoach Peeler and myself view that as our No. 1 goal, for these kids–to allow the game of baseball to help them continue their education,â€ Chapman said.
Baseball is important, but making good grades is even more importantâ€”is the message the coaches deliver often to their kids.
â€œTheyâ€™ve (Chapman and Peeler) helped me a ton, just by telling us to stay in school and keep our grades up. Baseball really doesnâ€™t bring a lot of scholarship money. Academic-wise is where you get your money,â€ Wise said.
In a twist of irony, next season, Finger and Wise will face each other instead of taking the field in the same uniform, as both Tusculum and Mars Hill are members of the NCAA Division IIâ€™s South Atlantic Conference.
Wise probably speaks for both of them when he said.
â€œThatâ€™s going to be tough. Iâ€™ve played with Paul a long time (five years) and itâ€™s going to be different. It might be weird, but itâ€™s also going to be fun.â€
by John Mark Brooks