Less than a week after two Chargers were honored with JBB All-American selections, five GHC Baseball Players were named among the very best in all of Junior College Baseball. Joe Sutton, Johnny Dow, Trace Twardoski, Palmer Sapp, and David Smith each landed a spot in The JBB top 150 Junior College Players for 2020. What is most impressive is how all five players have their own unique rags to riches style story. Out of the group, four were walk ons at GHC, three red shirted their first season at Highlands, and two languished in other programs before leaving in hopes of a better fit elsewhere.
Sutton, a second team All-American this year, received the highest ranking of the group, pulling in at number 22, and incredible ranking when you consider how he landed at GHC. Out of high school Sutton drew minimal interest from NCAA schools when his coach at Chestattee High School reached out to the Charger coaching staff asking if they would take a look at his star player. "I may be wrong on this, but I think we were the only ones on him," GHC head coach Dash O'Neill said. "Brock (Moss) had been in touch with Coach Brewer, who raved about Joe, so we decided to get our eyes on him. Thank goodness we did." Sutton took a walk on opportunity to join the GHC program and though he showed promise in the fall of 2018, Coach O'Neill decided to offer him a redshirt. "Joe was definitely good enough to be on the roster as a true freshman, but we had some guys ahead of him and it didn't make sense to waste a year of his eligibility on a handful of at bats. We thought a year of hard work in weight room and focusing on developing his game would make a huge difference for him." It turns out, it did make a huge difference as Sutton's .427 average 1.238 OPS and 30 RBIs in 2020 can attest.
At number 67, Johnny Dow, GHC's other All-American this season had one of the unlikely stories O'Neill has seen in his 16 year career. "If you do this long enough, you see alot of really cool success stories but Johnny Dow's is definitely up there. He was a kid that got cut from his high school team twice and he didn't throw hard enough at the time o get recruited in the summer." Only an old relationship with Dow's summer coach opened the door for Dow to get an opportunity at GHC. "Coach Mike Cooney and I played together and his brother Ed coached me when I was 14 years old. He called me and told me about Johnny and asked if I would come see him and consider letting him walk on. I saw a kid with a really good frame who dominated the strike zone but really needed to get in the weight room and develop physically." In his first fall at GHC Dow outperformed expectations, but was only topping 78-80 MPH on the radar gun, so like Sutton he was offered a chance to redshirt. "We really felt like if Johnny could take a year in a structured situation where he could focus strictly on getting stronger and building arm strength that he could be special," O'Neill said. "I knew that in Brock's system, Johnny would really thrive because all of the pieces were there, he just needed to develop them." By the end of that year, Dow had hit 90 MPH on the gun and was now dominating during scrimmages. This fall that trend continued, and it led to a spring in which Johnny Dow posted a 6-0 record with 41 K's, a 1.05 ERA, and a 0.85 WHIP. He did not walk a single batter.
Trace Twardoski had the third highest ranking on the JBB list, coming in at number 89. Twardoski was a product of perenial GHSA powerhouse Brookwood High School. Despite being a big contributor at BHS, Trace went largely overlooked by college recruiters when he went on an unofficial visit to GHC and got a chance to meet Coach O'Neill and Coach Moss. "It was really good fortune," O'Neill said. "We knew who Trace was, but we didn't really have any money left so I didn't think he would have much interest and then out of the blue I get a text from him asking if we could talk. We were trying to get a buddy of his at the time, but that text opened the door for us to discuss his situation." Twardoski, like Sutton and Dow would begin his GHC career as a walk on. "Twardo" struggled his first fall at the plate, but he set himself apart when he was asked to get on the mound. Coach O'Neill knew he had pitched in high school and was hoping to bolster his bullpen. "We were in the first phase of a development cycle with alot of our young pitchers, so we needed some guys who could step up and shoulder the load right away. Trace had a great arm, so I just asked him if he was willing to get on the bump and he said yes. He's got a great arm and he's super competitive, so its not surprising that he ended up being one of our top guys out of the pen." Though his arm got him on the field early in 2019, his bat soon became indispensable as well, and he found himself in the starting lineup in the second half of his freshman season. In 2020, that bat exploded as he led the GCAA in OPS (1.297) and doubles (12). Twardo hit a scorching hot .433 for the season and was a fixture at first base.
Pulling in at 106, Palmer Sapp thought he had it made when he signed at one of the best NCAA Division II schools in the nation out of Dawson County High School in 2018. Unfortunately, he found the reality to be a little more difficult. Though he performed well, the staff at his program had brought in some older players through the transfer portal that had more experience and were tabbed to start. Hoping for a fresh start, he informed his coaches that he wanted to leave and began emailing junior college coaches a little closer to home. One of those emails was to GHC head coach Dash O'Neill. "I was really looking for maybe one more piece on the infield when I got the email from Palmer. I knew the program he was coming from was very good and when we got on the phone I really liked the way he talked about the game. He had a high baseball IQ and just wanted an opportunity so I felt like it was a great fit." After a solid fall Sapp had earned a spot on the roster and solidified his presence in GHC lineup with a blistering hot start to the season. Sapp hit .500 with a double and homer run in the opening series against Chattanooga State and he never cooled off. Finishing the year with a .404 batting average and an OPS of 1.246, Sapp finished in the top 10 of nearly every important offensive category in the GCAA.
David Smith rounds out the list of Chargers named in the JBB top 150 at number 149. Like Sapp, Smith found himself signed at a strong program out of high school but quickly discovered that it was not the right fit for him. After returning home, he decided to go meet with Coach O'Neill to discuss playing at Highlands. "David had committed early in high school, so the first time I ever spoke with him was when he walked into my office one day and asked if I would give him chance to play at GHC. I thought he was one of the best catchers in the country, so it was a no brainer. The only issues were that we didn't have any money to sign him and he had to take a redshirt, so I wasn't sure if that would scare him off." Fortunately for the Chargers, those things did not matter to Smith. "He looked me in the eye and said 'None of that matters to me, I just want a chance to play.' You don't find guys like that every day." A red shirt year gave Smith a chance to fine tune his game and when he finally got to put on a Chargers uniform he put on a show, leading the GCAA with 7 home runs and 30 RBI's while hitting .325 and slugging an impressive .714 for the year.
Coach O'Neill beamed when talking about this group of players. "These guys are what junior college baseball is all about. JUCO is a chance to open doors and bring your game to levels you've never reached before. These guys prove that in the right program, and I think GHC is one of those programs, that it doesn't matter if you are a walk on, or your last school didn't work out, or even if we were the only place that was willing to give you a chance. In the right program you can develop and you can improve and find the right fit. For these guys to get recognized is a testament to their talent effort and the environment we try to provide so they can flourish. I think to have a group of guys where some are walk ons or didn't work out somewhere else or had to redshirt that are now recognized as some of the best players in the country is pretty special."
Led by players like these, GHC was off to the best start in program history. They were 21-4 and received votes in the last NJCAA poll.