FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The two seniors at Cartersville (Ga.) High School will travel two decidedly divergent paths at some point this summer, but they will always be able to look back fondly on the years they were teammates on the Purple Hurricanes' baseball team.
Connor Justus is a 6-foot-1, 195-pound shortstop who is the nation's 282nd-ranked prospect in the class of 2013; he has signed a national letter of intent to play college baseball at Georgia Tech in nearby Atlanta next school year.
Hayes Linn is a 6-foot, 185-pound outfielder and right-handed pitcher who can more accurately be identified as a safety/wide receiver turned cornerback, the position he will be at next fall after accepting a scholarship to play football at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
The shortstop and the cornerback are definitely on the same playing field this weekend, however, hoping to lead Cartersville High to a championship at the first Perfect Game High School Showdown. They are also representatives of a school, a program and a community with a tremendously rich history of success in not only baseball, but other sports as well.
"This is awesome; there's nothing else like it," Justus said of being part of head coach Stuart Chester's baseball program for four seasons now. "The family bond that we have is special and everybody has each other's back; it's just been great. You can't really ask for a better high school program than this one right here.
"Everyone just comes out and supports us, and it's great," he said. "The whole town is behind you and it just seems like everyone wants you to accomplish your goal and win a state championship."
Although Linn's immediate athletic future appears to lie on the football field, he remains passionate about baseball, and hinted that he might even try to walk-on to the Air Force baseball team. It's just tough for a Cartersville kid to ever leave baseball behind.
"Growing up, you always wanted to be a Cartersville Hurricane," Linn said. "You have kids coming in from everywhere who just want to be a Cartersville Hurricane and be part of the baseball program that coach Chester has put together. It's really something special, for sure, what we have in Cartersville and it's a blessing to be a part of it."
Simply stated, the players, parents, coaches and community at large are just crazy about Cartersville baseball.
The Hurricanes arrived at City of Palms Park Thursday afternoon about two hours before the scheduled start of their Showdown game against Montverde (Fla.) Academy, and about a half-hour before the first rain drops of what turned into a potent thunderstorm began to fall. The start of the game was delayed from 4 p.m. until 8 p.m. Linn wound up making the start for the Canes and turned in a seven-inning, five-hit, 13 strikeout effort in a 7-2 Cartersville victory. Justus, hitting from the leadoff spot in the order, was 2-for-3 with a run scored.
With an enrollment of just over 1,100 students, Cartersville is one of the smallest of the eight schools -- four from Georgia, four from Florida -- competing at the Showdown. That doesn't mean the Hurricanes will back down from anyone, of course.
"We're usually at home during spring break and we got this chance to take a little trip, but we're all business down here," Linn said. "We're trying to win games and we're trying to get better as a team."
The Hurricanes are looking to get tournament-tough as they prepare to make a deep run into the Georgia Class AAA playoffs in the coming weeks. The Canes won three state championships from 2001-03 and two more in 2008 and '09, and all that success has led to a passionate fan base within the tight-knit community located in the northwest Atlanta suburbs.
"Being a professional educator, I don't want to step out of bounds here, but it just seems like with the athletic programs there in Cartersville -- the community just hovers around them," Chester said Thursday. "Don't get me wrong, education and the classroom is the first priority, but when it comes to a sports program in Cartersville ... our community gets on fire. It's more than just athletics in all of our programs and for all of our coaches -- it's not a game of life but we try to teach life lessons."
Every member of the baseball team at Cartersville High is active in community service, helping to provide Christmas presents for the needy and helping to feed the hungry at Thanksgiving.
"It's a great opportunity if you're a young athlete, it's a great opportunity if you're a parent and it's an awesome opportunity if you're fortunate enough to be a coach of a program at Cartersville," Chester said.
The city of Cartersville's baseball history dates back to the early part of the last century when the late Rudy York called the Cartersville area home. York played 13 seasons in the major leagues (1934, 1937-48) most notably with the Detroit Tigers, and when the slugger died in 1970 at age 56, he was buried at Sunset Memorial Gardens in Cartersville. The little league ballpark in town is named Rudy York Field.
The successful East Cobb Baseball organization is headquartered in nearby Marietta and in the next year or so Perfect Game will proudly be involved with the opening of spectacular LakePoint Sporting Community & Town Center in nearby Emerson in Bartow County. One of five entities in the LakePoint project is a complex consisting of 16 regulation-sized baseball fields that PG will operate.
"With Perfect Game coming into town, I think that will add to our program and our community, as well," Chester said. "I'm fired-up about that for a lot of reasons. It's going to add growth and it's going to help the community as far as income to (Cartersville) and to Emerson. As far as our program, I want to keep that relationship with Perfect Game ... to the point when you mention Perfect Game I'd like Cartersville to kind of tag along right behind that."
A player like Justus is the face of the sort of talented prospects Chester's Cartersville program has produced over the last 16 years. Donavan Tate was a first round draft pick of the San Diego Padres right out of Cartersville High in 2009, and while Justus is not projected as a high level draft prospect, he seems to have a high enough ceiling to fit in well with head coach Danny Hall and the program at Georgia Tech.
"I'll speak about his ability as a person first, because I think that's greater than any athletic ability that he's got," Chester said of Justus. "Character and class is the first thing that comes to my mind when you mention Connor Justus and when you throw in the talent that he's got, it makes for a very good signee. Georgia Tech got a very good one when they got Connor."
Justus is the first Cartersville prospect to sign with Tech during Chester's tenure, and the young player couldn't be any happier about the opportunity he has been afforded.
"The coaches and the players, it's all just one big family (at Tech) and I'm really big on family," Justus said. "Things are done the right way there in that program; all the good baseball that's being played right around there and everything that goes into it from the coaches to the players and the campus itself, I just loved everything."
Those same elements played into Linn's decision to join the football program at Air Force. When moving on to the next level, the young athletes look for the same sense of family found at Cartersville.
"I went on an official visit out there, and I really liked the facilities, I liked the coaches and I liked the other players," Linn said. "I really liked the opportunities (that await) after you graduate, and that's a big deal to me."
Other senior Canes who have already signed with colleges to play baseball next school year include third baseman/right-hander JoJo Underwood (West Georgia), catcher/right-hander Ty Fowler (Georgia Highlands) and right-hander/first baseman Cole Anderson (LaGrange College).
Justus is typical of many of the top prospects from the north Atlanta suburbs in that he was very active with PG throughout his four-year high school career. He attended 17 PG events, most of them WWBA tournaments playing with East Cobb, but was most recently at the 2013 PG World Showcase held here in early January.
Like his coach, Justus put a lot of value on the Cartersville-PG relationship.
"That was very beneficial, and everything through Perfect Game has been great," he said. "There's high school baseball and then there's travel ball and Perfect Game is where you go to get exposure. It's been beneficial for me and even for (the Cartersville) program, as you can tell."