June 12, 2018 9:53:39 AM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
If you have watched any college softball or baseball in the last month, it's likely you have seen someone from the Golden Triangle playing a key role for their team.
That fact struck me a few weeks ago after watching Northwestern State third baseman Sam Taylor, a former standout at New Hope High School in Columbus, make a diving stop on a ground ball and throw a runner out at first base against LSU in the NCAA tournament's Corvallis Regional.
Former New Hope High standouts DJ Sanders (Oregon) and Will Golsan (Ole Miss) also wrapped up their collegiate careers earlier this month following successful senior seasons. Throw in former New Hope High standout Wells Davis, who had a solid junior season with the South Alabama baseball team, and Mississippi College baseball players Hunter Sykes (Heritage Academy) and Hunter Mullis (Columbus High), who also had strong seasons at the Division II level, and sports fans in the area had plenty to celebrate.
It remains to be seen if any of the baseball players will realize their professional dreams, but Sanders will take the next step in her journey later this week when she travels to Illinois to join the Chicago Bandits of the National Pro Fastpitch League. The Bandits are scheduled to play the Aussie Spirit at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Parkway Bank Sports Complex in Rosemont, Illinois. Chicago leads the five-team league with a 10-0 record. Former Oregon standout Gwen Svekis, a catcher, will join Sanders in moving from a top-five collegiate program to the pro ranks. They figure to give the Bandits plenty of punch in their lineup. Svekis led Oregon (53-10), which won the Pacific-12 Conference title, with 17 home runs, while Sanders had 16.
Sanders will be the area's latest student-athlete to come up through the youth ranks and realize a chance to play professionally. In the fall, countless others -- including Mississippi State's Kylin Hill (Columbus High) and Ole Miss' A.J. Brown (Starkville High) -- will showcase their talents on the football field. There is no doubt sports fans in the Greater Golden Triangle have been blessed with so much talent and potential.
All of the student-athletes should take a page from Sanders as they move forward.
Sanders' parents, Renee and Donnie, deserve a ton of credit for setting the example for DJ and all of their children. On Sunday, DJ had a final opportunity to reminisce with friends, family members, and former teammates at a going-away bash at the New Hope Community Center. There were plenty of smiles and hugs and pictures to be taken. When you're a celebrity like DJ, there were more than a few autographs to sign, too.
Sanders handled the festivities in her usual selfless manner. When she talked about the gathering Saturday, Sanders said she didn't want the event to be about her. Instead, she wanted to make sure that all of the people who helped her along the way knew what role they played to help her become a professional.
Sanders started her journey with a similar attitude, so it wasn't surprising she didn't want the spotlight Sunday to shine on her. It would have been OK for Sanders to bask in the limelight for a little while, especially after helping Oregon advance to the College World Series. Sanders capped her collegiate career by hitting .281 in 63 games (62 starts) for the Ducks. In addition to finishing second on the team in home runs, she also was second in RBIs (51), slugging percentage (.614), and total bases (105).
Sanders' success came after she was named the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year and one of 10 finalists for national player of the year as a junior at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Sanders led the NCAA with 29 home runs and 82 RBIs and hit a career-high .388. But Sanders was forced to transfer in November 2017 after ULL coach Mike Lotief was fired.
When Sanders talked in November about her move, you could tell she was troubled by the decision, but she tried to stay positive and to figure out a way to make the best of the situation. Sanders followed that plan in every pursuit, and she did it with a smile on her face and a warm greeting. If you didn't know Sanders, her infectious personality immediately welcomed you. Her work ethic challenged you to match her intensity. That's why it was a pleasure to watch her mature from a standout in slow- and fast-pitch softball and basketball in the state of Mississippi to one of the nation's premier softball players.
The months to come will feature familiar and new prospects who will help represent the area. The spotlight will be bright. There will be plenty of haters, too, who will be eager to bring young people having success down. But Sanders has done all of the right things to carve out a path to the pro ranks. Here's wishing her the best and hoping all of the student-athletes who follow in her footsteps learn from how she has reached this point.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.