When veteran Georgia Tech baseball coach Danny Hall contemplates the challenges awaiting him and his program with the arrival of each new season, the primary one is fairly easy to recognize – at least in Hall’s mind.
“My challenge is, I want to win a national championship, and when I came here 18 years ago that was the goal and that’s always going to be the goal,” Hall said in a conversation with Perfect Game about a month before the Yellow Jackets’ 2011 season-opener (Feb. 18) against Kent State. “I want to do the things that are going to take our program to the next level and it starts with recruiting. If you don’t have good players, I don’t care who you are, you’re not going to win.”
Since arriving on the Georgia Institute of Technology campus in Midtown Atlanta in time for the 1994 spring season, Hall has recruited a lot of really good players and done plenty of winning, and has maintained Tech’s position among the upper echelon of the college baseball scene.
The Tech program was a long way from the scrap heap when head coach Jim Morris left after the 1993 season to take over the program at the University of Miami. Morris had led the Jackets to nine straight NCAA regional appearances before departing for Miami.
Hall came from Kent State, where in six seasons he guided that program from mediocrity to its first two NCAA regional berths in 1992 and ’93. When he arrived at Tech in time for the 1994 season, he soon discovered Morris had left him a cupboard brimming with talent, and he hit the ground running.
In Hall’s first season, the Yellow Jackets advanced to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., for the first time in school history, where they eventually lost to Oklahoma in the national championship game. They finished with a 50-17 record.
Tech has failed to earn a berth in the NCAA tournament only twice in Hall’s 17 seasons, and the Jackets returned to the CWS in 2002 and ’06. Hall is 737-328-1 (.692) at Tech and 945-445-1 (.680) in 23 years as a head coach.
He elevated the program at Kent State to excellence and has maintained excellence at Georgia Tech.
“I do take a lot of pride in how consistent we have been over the years (in terms of) getting into the NCAA tournament and having a competitive program nationally because each year it gets tougher,” Hall said of his time at Tech. “There are many more programs (today) that are certainly worthy of being great programs and going to Omaha, so I do take pride in the sustainability of our program.”
In the same breath, Hall said he also takes pride in the way he was able to elevate the fortunes of the program at Kent State.
“I went to that program and they had never won. They had never been competitive in the Mid-American Conference … and we had some big wins certainly for that program,” he said.
Hall believes in recruiting his own backyard first, and 25 of the 35 spots on the 2011 roster are filled by Georgians. All 35 players were extremely active in Perfect Game events while in high school, either as members of East Cobb Baseball travel teams or by participating in PG events at the East Cobb Complex in nearby Marietta.
“We always look here in Georgia and I do think we’re in one of the best states for not only high school baseball but amateur baseball with the East Cobb program and a lot of other really good amateur programs that compete here in the summertime,” Hall said. “But we have to look nationally because this is not an easy place to get somebody into school, and many times we have to walk away from guys we’d like to recruit because academically they can’t get into Georgia Tech.”
The university, nationally recognized for its Colleges of Engineering, Architecture, Computing and Sciences, among others, boasts rigid academic and admittance standards. Hall uses those standards as a positive on the recruiting trail.
“We can give them the best of both worlds. We can give them an education that is second to none … and we’re going to give them a baseball program that is going to compete at the national level,” he said. “We’re going to play in a conference that is one of the best … in the country, and on top of that we’ve had several guys who have played here that not only have made it to the Major Leagues but have had great careers at the Major League level.
“At the end of the day I think we have a lot to offer somebody that is looking for a competitive program that’s got a chance to compete nationally, and also get a great education.”
Georgia Tech’s campus lies in the heart of Atlanta, the largest city in the Southeast with plenty to offer, especially when it comes to professional sports franchises – there are the MLB Braves, the NFL Falcons, the NBA Hawks, the NHL Thrashers, the WNBA Dream and both men’s and women’s professional soccer.
“Atlanta is one of the most vibrant cities that we have in our country (and) there is a lot of stuff to do right here in the heart of the city,” Hall said. “When we say ‘urban campus’ it is urban, but I would also say Georgia Tech is kind of its own little city within downtown Atlanta in Midtown.”
The Yellow Jackets play their home games at historic Russ Chandler Stadium, a 4,100-seat facility nestled neatly on campus. The legendary “Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech” – a 1930 Ford Model A Sport Coupe and the official mascot of the student body – has been known to roll up out front during many of the games.
Georgia Tech is a member of the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference which presents daunting challenges of its own. Nationally competitive teams from Miami, Clemson, Florida State, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Boston College, North Carolina and North Carolina State can be found lurking on Tech’s schedule on any given weekend in April and May.
“Our league is a bear year-in and year-out,” Hall said. “It’s a tough grind to be competitive.”
The Jackets finished 47-15 in 2010 –Tech has averaged 43 wins per season during Hall’s tenure – following a 2-2 showing at the Atlanta Regional, which they hosted. They finished in second place behind Virginia in Coastal Division of the ACC with a 21-9 league mark, and expected to make a much deeper run into the postseason.
“I think it was a good year. It was not a great year,” Hall said. “I think that we had an excellent team and felt like it was a team that had a chance to get to Omaha, so to fall short of that certainly was disappointing. It doesn’t take away from some of the individual accomplishments that our guys had and the way we played throughout the year.”
A couple of weeks after the season came to an end, Hall watched as his roster was plucked clean in the 2010 MLB June Amateur Draft. A school record 10 players were chosen in the first 19 rounds – five in the first 9 rounds – including right-hander Deck McGuire, a 1st round selection (11th overall) of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Of the 10 roster players selected, only right-hander Kevin Jacob (18th round, Yankees) returned to school.
If that wasn’t painful enough, Tech also had nine members of its 2010 recruiting class drafted, although six decided to honor their college commitments. Tech lost 1st round picks Jake Skole and Chevez Clarke, and 8th-rounder Alexander Lavisky to the professional ranks.
“That’s a good thing and a bad thing,” Hall said of the number of his players drafted. “It’s good for the kids who got an opportunity to go play, but it does make it a little harder on ol’ Coach Hall here, too, to year after year keep building a competitive team.”
Having players drafted is nothing new to the Tech program – at least one Yellow Jacket has been selected in the MLB Draft every year since 1980. Former Georgia Tech players who were playing in the big leagues in 2010 included Mark Teixeira, Jason Varitek, Marlon Byrd, Micah Owings, Matt Wieters and Blake Wood. Former Yellow Jacket Matt Murton played professionally in Japan in 2010.
Of the six 2010 signees who chose school over the pros, right-hander Matthew Grimes and right-hander/outfielder DeAndre Smelter are the picks of the litter. Grimes was a 4th round pick by the White Sox and Smelter – a 2009 Aflac All-American – was taken in the 14thround by the Twins.
All told, Hall brought in 16 freshmen in the fall and most will be asked to contribute immediately.
“We have a pretty talented freshmen class with a lot of depth in the different positions,” Hall said. “It’s the largest recruiting class we’ve ever had but we kind of anticipated that the Draft could hurt us, particularly with guys that were (already) on our team. We were hoping it wouldn’t hurt us too bad with guys that we had signed, but we anticipated that we might lose a few there, too.”
The top returning position player in 2011 is junior infielder Matt Skole, who hit .335 with 20 home runs, 15 doubles, 62 runs and 63 RBIs last spring. The only other everyday position player returning is junior infielder Jacob Esch (.284).
The pitching staff returns junior left-hander Jed Bradley and junior righty Mark Pope. Bradley, who Perfect Game projects as the 10thoverall pick in the 2011 Draft, was 9-5 with a 4.83 ERA in 16 starts in 2010 and Pope was 8-1 with a 3.78 ERA in 11 starts and 13 appearances.
And so it begins again, another season of baseball in baseball-crazy Atlanta. Hall will continue to pound the pavement and beat the bushes in an effort to bring top-notch student-athletes to the campus.
“We’re always going to be at all of (Perfect Game’s) events trying to find the best players in the country that are also good students and can not only handle the baseball at Georgia Tech but handle getting into school and being a student as well,” he said.
And Hall will never take his eye off the ultimate prize.
“I want to get to Omaha and I want to win a national championship,” he repeated. “Everything we do on a daily basis goes into trying to reach that goal.”
What follows is a list of players on the 2011 Georgia Tech roster who participated in Perfect Game events while in high school. Click on the player’s name to see his complete PG profile:
Luke Bard– PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Jed Bradley – PG WWBA
Zach Brewster – PG WWBA/PG BCS
Chase Butler – PG National/PG National Underclass/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Alex Cruz – PG WWBA/PG BCS
Clay Dalton – PG WWBA/PG BCS
Jake Davies – PG National/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Jarrett Didrick – PG WWBA
Sam Dove– PG AC Underclass/PG WWBA
Mitch Ernest – PG-East Cobb Invite
Jacob Esch – PG P/C Indoor/PG WWBA
Zane Evans – PG National Pre-Draft/PG National Underclass/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Buck Farmer – PG SE Top Prospect/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Matthew Grimes – PG WWBA/PG BCS
Mott Hyde– PG National/PG National Underclass/PG Wrigley Classic/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Dusty Isaacs – PG National/PG National Underclass
Kevin Jacob – PG WWBA
Roddy Jones – PG WWBA
Conner Kendrick – PG WWBA/PG BCS
Paul Kronenfeld – PG WWBA
Brad Markey – PG National Underclass/PG WWBA
Evan Martin – PG WWBA/PG BCS
Daniel Palka – PG WWBA/PG BCS
Mark Pope– PG National/PG National Underclass/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Jonathan Roberts – PG-East Cobb Invite/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Matt Skole – PG WWBA
DeAndre Smelter – Aflac AA Classic/PG National/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Devin Stanton – PG SE Top Prospect/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Brandon Thomas – PG National/PG SE Top Prospect/PG WWBA
Chris Triplett – PG National/PG SE Top Prospect/PG WWBA
Jeff Ussery – PG National Underclass/PG SE Top Prospect/PG WWBA/PG-BA World
Connor Winn – PG National Underclass/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Taylor Wood – PG WWBA
Colby Wren – PG WWBA/PG BCS
Kyle Wren – PG SE Top Prospect/PG-East Cobb Invite/PG WWBA/PG BCS
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