Steady, consistent improvements are the words to describe the first three seasons of the Adam Thomas regime at Chattahoochee Valley Community College. However, from the onset of the 2002 season the Pirates regained their position as one of the state’s elite programs. After the 2010 club staked its claim as merely the greatest regular season team in the history of the program, and arguably the ACCC, by finishing with a 42-8 record, going 24-3 in conference play, and an amazing 22-0 at home, as well as winning CVCC’s first Divisional Championship since the ACCC realigned, the 2011 club simply followed suit with a team literally full of freshman and posted 38-19 record with a 23-7 league mark, and claimed, once again, the ACCC’s Southern Division Crown.
Although the Pirates are typical hot starters to the season, the 2011 campaign followed a different course. February saw the Pirates play just over .500 baseball, swapping wins and losses on a weekly basis. March saw the Pirates gain momentum during conference play as the separation from the rest of the pack began. April brought nothing but pure domination, as the Pirates went a staggering 15-2 down the stretch to claim its second consecutive Southern Division Title on the final day of the regular season, in a hard fought 9-5 win against a determined Jeff Davis club.
Entering the season, there was no question that Chattahoochee Valley had its typical assortment of talent assembled, as a # 17 NJCAA ranking supported the high expectations that come with the program. The only problem was that it had only two players returning that had any significant game experience at “The Lake”. After a fall season of team and roster building, February proved to be a month of finding its way and paving the road for its identity, as the Pirates went a modest 11-9 during the opening month. There were plenty of big wins and several frustrating losses, but what showed up to the park everyday was a clear idea that these baby Pirates had a chance to be champions.
Riding a 23 game home winning streak that dated back to the 2009 season, the Pirates opened up the 2011 season at home, sweet home for a 3 game series against East Georgia College. The Pirates dominated the opener to run its streak to 24 games, however, the youthfulness showed up the next day as the streak came to an end. After going 3-4 over the next 2 weeks, a glimpse of what was to come occurred from the left arm of freshman starting pitcher, Mike O’Neal, as he led Chatt Valley to an absolute thrashing of Georgia JUCO rival and eventual GJCAA Champions, Georgia Perimeter College, to the tune of a 13-1 beating. That spark carried the Pirates down to Panama City, Florida for their first trip to the Gulf Coast Invitational, as the Pirates absolutely dismantled ACCC foe, and Northern Division rival and powerhouse, Shelton State in 2 games, by a combined score of 20-4. After dropping two close ones to Wallace-Dothan and Gulf Coast, the Pirates rebounded and won 3 of its next 4 games by a talley of 28-4 over Gadsden State, Darton College, and East Georgia College to put the wraps on an up and down month.
The month of March saw the mojo beginning to work for CVCC, as the non-conference slate was coming to a close, with the daunting ACCC schedule looming around the corner. The big boppers for the Pirates, Bryce Dial, Rob Shipman, Ty Abbott, Trey Williamon, and Taylor Hinshaw began heating up and became a consistent force in the lineup. The young pitching staff of O’Neal, Zach Helewski, Trace McDaniel, Martin Castro, Matt Vollenweider, Dustin Dunagan, and Daniel Szathmary very quickly matured, and came of age. All of sudden, the baby Pirates became a dominating force. However, it took the first two series of the year for the Pirates to gain their sea legs, as those series were nearly identical in nature. The first conference series of the year was a home double header against defending ACCC tournament champ, Faulkner State. After a convincing and lopsided 14-2 win in game 1, the Pirates dropped game 2, 5-4, in which they held a 3 run last inning lead. Virtually the same thing happened the next week against Dothan, as the Pirates manhandled the Govs, 9-5 in game 1, while letting a final inning lead slip from their grasp in a 3-2 loss in the back end of the conference double header.
The next three series saw the Pirates sweep their Southern Division foes of Alabama Southern, Bishop State, and Southern Union to put them in a tie for first place with Central Alabama, who was up next on the docket. Unfortunately, the next 2 series were a nightmare for the Pirates, but ultimately became the defining moment of the season. After being swept by CACC, the Pirates hosted Enterprise State for the opportunity to put themselves right back at the top of the league. After an 11-1 shellacking in game 1, the Pirates dropped a game they should not have in the nightcap, which set the tone for an April to remember.
With their confidence shaken and the season teetering on the edge, the Pirate ship was straightened, and Chatt Valley went on a 15-2 tear to reclaim its Southern Division Title. After a split with LBW on the road, the Pirates rolled off nine straight wins (8 conference games), and posted double digit runs in 6 of those contests. The Pirates swept Wallace-Selma enroute to Coach Thomas’s 400th career win, in a day that saw Chatt Valley bash eight homers and score 31 runs. CVCC then proceeded to dismantle the Warhawks of Jeff Davis to complete the double header round of the ACCC schedule. The remaining ten conference games would be the difference in conference contenders and pretenders.
First up was Faulkner State. Mike O’Neal threw an absolute gem in a complete game, 5-4 win in Bay Minette, in front of a hostile crowd. Four days later, Zach Helewski dominated Dothan, as Shipman and Dial put on a home run derby in a 14-1 destruction of the Govs. O’Neill turned the trick once again the following week as he shut down Alabama Southern with the help of battery mate, Dustin Averett’s bases clearing double to seal the 8-3 win for the Pirates. After a tough loss on the road at Southern Union, the Pirates began a five game winning streak to clinch the division. None of those games were bigger than the one against division co-leader, Central Alabama. After a March double header sweep, CVCC had climbed its way back to the top of the leader board and the April 23rd contest against the Trojans would be a defacto division championship game.
That game did not disappoint, as it was a classic pitchers’ duel. O’Neal, once again came out on top as the Pirates won a tense, and hard fought contest in front of the home crowd by a count of 5-3. With the leaders of the league in the rear view, all the Pirates needed to do was win 4 straight against the bottom half of the league. Chatt Valley did not have any letdowns, as they steamrolled through Enterprise, LBW, Wallace-Selma, and Jeff Davis to claim their second consecutive ACCC Southern Division Title.
Entering the ACCC tourney as the # 1 seed while holding a # 21 NJCAA ranking, and, of course, the favorite to win, the Pirates had an exact repeat of their fate from 2010. For whatever reason, the tourney has had the Pirates number, as Chatt Valley dropped its opener to Southern Union 7-3 in which Mike O’Neal just wasn’t quite his typical self. Zach Helewski came to the rescue the next day, as he single handedly willed the Pirates to a 9-5 win over Jeff State. Unfortunately, the next day saw the early exit of Chatt Valley, as old rival, Faulkner State, pulled off a come from behind 4-3 win, as Trace McDaniel pitched possibly the game of the tournament in the Pirate loss.
Nonetheless, it was another incredible season, as the Pirates finished the year with a # 29 NJCAA ranking and led the league in the following categories: slugging percentage, runs scored, RBI’s, doubles, homeruns, ERA, opponent’s batting average, fewest runs allowed, fewest walks allowed, and assists.
Leading the offensive charge in 2011 was center fielder, Bryce Dial. Dial was simply the most feared offensive player in the ACCC. It’s very hard to put into words what Bryce meant to this lineup and the effect he had on opposing pitchers. Every swing was a homerun waiting to happen. Infielders played with their heels on the outfield grass, outfielders played with their backs against the wall, pitchers pitched with surgeon-like carefulness, and opposing coaches held their breath every time he stepped into the batter’s box. His numbers were Ruthian in nature. He was in the top 10 in the ACCC in every meaningful statistical category, while leading the league in homers, slugging percentage, RBI’s, and total bases. On the season, Dial hit .339, with 64 hits, 60 runs, 16 doubles, 18 homers, 65 RBI’s, and 18 stolen bases. His efforts landed him on the ACCC All-Conference Team.
Joining Dial in the offensive onslaught was a host of Pirates: Rob Shipman, Martin Castro, Trey Williamon, Ty Abbott, and Taylor Hinshaw. Shipman was the complement and protection to Dial in the vaunted Pirate lineup, as he blasted 16 homers of his own, with 12 doubles and 63 RBI’s to go along with his .306 batting average. He also was a member of the All ACCC Team. Castro may have been the best all-around hitter in the ACCC. An on base machine, Marty hit .351 with 60 runs, 60 hits, 35 RBI’s and a CVCC and ACCC record, 68 walks to give him an on base percentage of .544 for the season. He joined Dial and Shipman on the ACCC All Conference Team, as well. Trey Williamon was perhaps the biggest surprise of them all. After transferring to CVCC in January and being a relative unknown, all Williamon did was play every single day at third base while hitting .354 with 17 doubles and 50 RBI’s on the season. After missing the first month of the season with minor knee surgery, Ty Abbott, the freshman right fielder for the Pirates, became a force in the middle of the lineup while hitting .341, with 16 doubles, 3 homers, and 29 RBI’s. Finally, freshman leftfielder and DH, Taylor Hinshaw added to the offensive onslaught by blasting 6 bombs and a team leading 19 doubles to complement his 44 RBI’s.
On the season, the Pirates had nine players hit over .300 in 2011. Those eclipsing the .300 mark were Brad Barto (.375), Vincente Andrews (.367), Williamon, Castro, Abbott, Dial, Nate Hodge (.330), Pat Olvaney (.317), and Shipman.
The pitching story of the year was the All-Freshman staff of the Pirate pitching rotation that became the best in the ACCC. Leading the charge was left hander, Mike O’Neal. O’Neal was simply the best pitcher in the league – PERIOD. At the conclusion of the regular season, he won the pitcher’s Triple Crown, as he led the league in wins, strikeouts, and ERA. On the year, Mike went 11-2, with 4 saves and a 2.60 ERA with 110 strikeouts in 120 innings pitched. Although those numbers speak for themselves, probably the most impressive statistic is that he only allowed 11 walks on the entire season. He was, quite frankly, the most dominant pitcher in the state and was rewarded by garnering First Team All-Southern Division and First Team All ACCC status.
To make matters even worse for conference opponents, after facing the league’s best pitcher in Mike O’Neal, they then had to stare down two more of the ACCC’s top arms in Zach Helewski and Martin Castro. Helewski posted 7 wins for the Pirates with a 3.42 ERA while punching out 67 opposing batters. Lu was at his best down the stretch, as he became arguably the most dominant pitcher on the Pirate staff in April. Castro, while doubling as the Pirates’ shortstop, went a perfect 4-0 as a conference starter for CVCC. He boasted a 3.12 ERA 48 K’s in 60 innings pitched. As mentioned before, he earned All Conference honors as the top 2-way player in the league. Once it was all said and done, The Freshman Threesome went 22-6 with a 2.97 ERA with 225 strikeouts in 266 innings pitched.
Joining in the freshman pitching success were right handers, Matt Vollenweider, Daniel Szathmary, and Trace McDaniel. All three enjoyed break out seasons as the Pirates pitching punch was unquestionably considered the best staff in the Southern Division. As a late inning reliever, Vollenweider posted a 2-2 record with 3 saves and a miniscule 1.82 ERA while striking out 25 batters in 24 innings. Szathmary and McDaniel both served similar roles for Chatt Valley as they pitched as both conference and non-conference starters, as well as, long and short relievers. Regardless of how they were used, they were both stellar. Szathmary went 6-1 with a 3.23 ERA while McDaniel added 4 wins to the record with a 4.29 ERA in 2011, with the duo striking out a total of 69 hitters in 93 innings pitched.
As a staff, the Pirates put together another stellar season, by posting a team ERA under 4.00 for the ninth consecutive season (3.74). Six Pirates’ posted ERA’s under 4.00: Vollenweider, Pat Olvaney (2.25), O’Neal, Castro, Szathmary, and Helewski. Additionally, this staff was in the top 2 in the ACCC in every single meaningful pitching category.
Coach Thomas’ sophomore class was once again successful in moving on to the next level ofbaseball. Those who were drafted by Major League Baseball teams or were offered scholarships and/or are now playing at four-year institutions are: Vincente Andrews (University of Montevallo), Bryce Dial (Coastal Carolina University), Nate Hodge (Thomas University), Zack Jordan (Martin Methodist College), Keith Tidwell (Martin Methodist College).
For Coach Thomas and company, the 2011 season was a culmination of a young team full of talent maturing into baseball playing men over the course of the season, all the while, overcoming adversity and becoming Southern Division Champions.