The East Tennessee State senior is leading Buccaneers batters in most categories, just as he did last year as a junior. Despite an aching knee, Freeman led ETSU in hitting (.335) in 2013 and finished a distant first in home runs (10) and RBIs (57).
But when Major League Baseball’s June draft arrived, his phone was silent until St. Louis called in the 27th round. So Freeman has parlayed that semi-snub into a grand finale.
He went to the Cape Cod League last summer, where he was a leftfielder. He finished eighth in the league in hitting and pitched effectively in a limited relief role, including a save and five strikeouts in four innings.
And Freeman is surely raising his stock this season at ETSU. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound left-hander is leading the team in hitting (.346 through Friday) and has more home runs (10) and RBIs (47) than any two teammates’ combined totals.
“It was disappointing to me that I got a call last year in the 27th round, and it really wasn’t what I was wanting to hear,” Freeman said. “But the Lord had a better plan for me. And I didn’t understand it at that point in time and, you know, I was mad about it, but I wouldn’t trade it now looking back — going to the Cape and hitting (.322) and representing ETSU like that, and just coming back this year with all the support I’ve had.”
Freeman’s notoriety has included attention from Baseball America. He has embraced success, including the adoration of many area youth players.
“If you just look outside of your own self,” Freeman said, “what the Lord’s blessed you with and the people that look up to you is a pretty special thing.”
Freeman was hoping to get drafted somewhere between rounds eight and 15 last year. He has received letters from every MLB organization, has 12 or 13 scout cards and has recently heard from the New York Yankees, Houston, Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
He’s projected as a position player, and said St. Louis did see pitching as a viable Plan B. Regardless of position or organization, Freeman has faith he’s on his intended track.
“Wherever I get drafted is wherever I get drafted at,” he said. “But I think it’ll be good this year though definitely, especially after going up to the Cape.”
Freeman hit a home run in both wins against Tennessee team this season. One came on a curveball and the other on a changeup. He also got the save in both games, the latter of which left Volunteers coach Dave Serrano to suggest he would’ve recruited Freeman aggressively if he had been in Knoxville when Freeman was at David Crockett.
Serrano was at Tennessee when Wake Forest managed to land Science Hill’s Will Craig last year. The freshman third baseman is leading the Demon Deacons in home runs (eight), RBIs (34) and slugging. His eight home runs are as many as those of any two teammates combined.
Craig hit a three-run home run and drove in five runs in Wake Forest’s 8-3 win against Charlotte on Tuesday.
The Demon Deacons (12-10, 26-19) visit Appalachian State on Tuesday. Wake Forest visits UNC-Asheville on May 13.
Craig was on the mound as a Science Hill freshman when Freeman pitched Crockett to its first victory in the series in five years. The win came in the district tournament and forced an extra game for the Hilltoppers to win the title. Freeman allowed one run in five innings on three days rest against Science Hill after striking out 20 in a win against Daniel Boone.
The Hilltoppers had put Crockett in the losers bracket when senior Daniel Norris pitched his first high school no-hitter and matched a career high with 18 strikeouts.
Norris, who turned 21 on Friday, is pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays’ High-A affiliate in Dunedin, Fla. He is 2-0 with a 0.95 ERA. The 6-foot-2, 180-pound left-hander has struck out 21 and walked five in 19 innings, and opponents are batting .200.
Science Hill outfielder Malik Stephens’ baseball season officially came to an end when he had knee surgery on Friday. The speedy junior was finding his groove when a freak injury occurred last weekend.
Hilltoppers coach Ryan Edwards said Stephens essentially did nothing more than step awkwardly in the dugout — “He wasn’t even goofing off or anything” and “just planted on the leg wrong” — to incur the injury.
Stephens was third on the team in batting (.413). He went 3-for-3 with a triple and four RBIs in a win against Tennessee High a week and a half before getting injured.
Edwards said Stephens was quickly becoming a pest for defenses and putting the ball in play much more consistently.
“He’d finally started doing what we wanted him to do,” Edwards said, “being that scrappy guy that’d lay down a bunt and then just turn on a pitch.”
Also a receiver/safety on the football team, Stephens was one of coach Stacy Carter’s most dynamic weapons this past season. He could produce points running on a jet sweep or passing on a flanker reverse flea-flicker.
Stephens had scored a 4-yard touchdown against Sullivan Central shortly before sustaining what proved to be a season-ending shoulder injury on Oct. 11. He had shoulder surgery on Friday, Oct. 25.
There is apparently a considerable silver lining for the athletic Stephens. Edwards said only a meniscus problem was detected during Friday’s surgery. If there’d been an ACL tear, any chance for football in 2014 would’ve been doubtful at best.
“He’s looking at weeks versus months,” Edwards said. “They said he has to stay off of it six weeks.”
The Hilltoppers (8-3, 26-6) conclude the regular season at Volunteer on Monday.
Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer nearly went to play for Science Hill graduate Brien Crowder in 1989 when Budenholzer’s father, Vince, was Crowder’s assistant during Crowder’s two seasons at Northland Pioneer Community College in Holbrook, Ariz.
“His dad was my assistant … a great defensive coach,” said Crowder, who still talks frequently with Vince.
Crowder said the younger Budenholzer wanted to go to Northland Pioneer, as it was his hometown college and he was the best player on his high school team. But his high ACT score would’ve made junior college a curious choice.
Budenholzer made a smart move in opting for Pomona College, an NCAA Division III program that had been coached by Gregg Popovich (1979-87).
Incidentally, Budenholzer got his coaching start in the NBA with San Antonio in 1996.
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