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L-E trio ready to add to FDTC’s buzz

Demons’ Branham, Dorton and Lynch staying together after signing with Stingers

Posted: November 27, 2017 4:04 p.m.
Updated: November 28, 2017 1:00 a.m.
Tom Didato/C-I

LUGOFF-ELGIN SENIORS (from left) Zac Branham, Jay Lynch and Justin Dorton, signed National Letters of Intent to continue their respective academic and baseball-playing pursuits at Florence-Darlington Technical College. Joining in for the ceremony and standing (from left) are L-E athletic director Matt Campbell, L-E assistant baseball coach Joe Harvley, L-E head baseball coach Randy Stokes, L-E pitching coach Jeremy Ray and L-E principal Worth Thomasson.

As workers furiously put the finishing touches on the new baseball complex at Florence-Darlington Technical College in time for the upcoming season, school officials may want to add a few more rows of bleachers to the original design.

If the gathering for last Monday’s signing of Lugoff-Elgin seniors Zac Branham, Justin Dorton and Jay Lynch with FDTC are any indication of the following the three young men will attract, attendance at Stingers’ home game will increase exponentially beginning in the spring of 2019.

Before a large gathering of family, friends and current teammates, the trio of Demons cemented their college plans as they honored their verbal pledges by signing National Letters of Intents with Preston McDonald’s surging program.

As he looked toward the crowd which showed up for the signing ceremony and photo opportunity inside the school’s Wellness Center, L-E head baseball coach Randy Stokes said the numbers in attendance spoke volumes as to the players’ commitment not only to baseball but to their families and community, as well.

“I walked in and looked and I see all these family members that are here for these kids; uncles and aunts, grandmas and granddaddies, brothers and sisters,” Stokes said. “They have a lot to be proud of. Those three kids who signed today are quality kids.”

Two of the signees --- Dorton and Lynch --- are first cousins while Branham has been playing baseball with the pair since all three of them could throw a ball and swing a bat. In the end, it was almost inevitable that the trio would continue as classmates and teammates in college.

In all three instances, the players were first recruited to FDTC by former Stingers’ pitching coach and L-E graduate and former Demon baseball standout Will Dorton, who was named as the head pitching coach at his college alma mater, the College of Charleston, earlier this year.

Under McDonald, the Stingers reached the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division I World Series in 2016; a first for the program. They finished with a 42-19 record. 

McDonald, who is entering his eight season at the FDTC helm, was named as the JCAA Division I Eastern Region Coach of the Year, per the American Baseball Coaches Association and Diamond Sport. In addition, he was tabbed as the NJCAA’s Division I Eastern District Coach of the Year.

 

Injury fails to slow down Branham

 

Who could have blamed Zac Branham is he decided to take a few days away from baseball after having sustained a broken left (non-pitching) hand in the Demons’ preseason scrimmage with Airport last spring?

That, however, is not the way the three-year starter is wired. While some players might have looked at their situation as receiving a few days off, Branham never skipped a beat. Outfitted with a cast on his left hand, Branham continued to prepare just as he would had he had two healthy arms.

That, Stokes said, speaks volumes as to Branham’s character and determination. “It tells you what kind of a kid that Zac is,” Stokes said.  “He got hit in a scrimmage and broke his hand. The next day, while some kids may have said that they were going to sit around because they had a cast on, Zac was back and getting ready; he was back at work running and exercising. He was throwing the ball and somebody was having to catch it for him and give the ball to him. 

“He knew that the day that the doctor said he could come back to the team that he would be ready to come back. He wanted to make sure that even before the cast came off that he was ready to go.”

Branham returned to the lineup in time to pitch in L-E’s final game of the Lake Murray Preseason Tournament. Fitted with a protective pad on his glove hand, all the right-hander would do was to allow one hit while facing 22 batters in a 10-0 win over Ridge View.

Branham, like Dorton and Lynch, is a pitcher who also plays in the field. In this instance, Branham is an infielder who has seen most of his time in the field at second base.

On the mound, Branham made nine starts and finished with a team-best six wins in eight decisions. His 48.1 innings of work also led the Demons as did his 51 strikeouts. He pitched to a 1.16 earned run average.

At the plate, Branham batted at a .467 clip with 21 hits in 45 at bats which included three doubles and a home run while driving in 16 runs.

Branham, who was offered by McDonald as a pitcher, could be a player who McDonald can use in a variety of ways and not feel as if the team will be getting cheated wherever he is placed on the diamond.

“He’s good at everything he does,” Stokes said of Branham’s versatility. “Zac comes to practice every day and his goal is to get better every day. He is just a pleasure to coach.”

Signing with FDTC, a program which had 15 current players sign Division I National Letters of Intent this month, is the next step on Branham’s longtime goal of playing at the highest level of college baseball.

“I’ve always had the dream of playing Division I baseball,” he said. “I felt that this was a stepping stone as to where I wanted to be.”

Given their appearance in the NJCAA Division I World Series last spring and with an abundance of talent returning this year, the Stingers have become one of the nation’s hottest junior college programs. Seeing how the Stingers have built that reputation impressed Branham in his search for a collegiate home.

“The program is really evolving,” he said. “A couple years ago, nobody had really heard of them then, last year, they made it to the JuCo World Series and get beat by the team, Chipola (JC) that won the whole thing. It’s definitely a program that is rising.”

Branham was the third member of the L-E group to decide to cast his lot with the Stingers. He said there is a certain comfort level going to a program along with two of his good friends, not to mention current FDTC freshman catcher Chase Galloway, who played for the Demons before graduating last spring. He was quick to point out that this was not a package deal.

“They made their decisions before me,” Branham said of Dorton and Lynch. “(My decision) was partly based off of that but I made my own decision that was best for me. But (having Dorton and Lynch already in the fold) definitely played a part in why I am going there.”

In making his final decision, Branham said when he made his visits to the school’s campus in Florence, he always felt as if he was welcomed and was one of the guys.

“I like the fact that it’s a family,” he said. “They are going to help you a lot there … they’re not going to let you fail.”

Stokes said all three of the players his program is sending to McDonald are young men whom the Stinger staff does not have to worry about. “Zac does the right things in school and he does the right things out of school. We’re real lucky to have him,” he said.

Saying the pace of the game is what will be the biggest change in getting used to after having come from the high school game, Branham said he is preparing himself for the next step in his baseball career.

“The older you get, the faster the pace is going to be. You just have to adjust as to how fast it’s going to be,” he said. “I have to work on the mental part of the game and I have to get stronger; I just have to learn more about the game every day.”

As for his team, Stokes said Zac Branham is one of those young men who can help make up for any holes which a team has. His work ethic, said the L-E boss, is unquestioned and his quiet leadership sets an example for his teammates.

“I’ve been coaching for a long time and Zac Branham is a ‘makeup’ kid,” Stokes said. “He’s a tough kid who comes to practice every day and you know what you’re going to get from him. I tell people all the time that Zac is a makeup kid for our program. 

 “He doesn’t say a lot. He leads more by example than he does vocally.”

While saying he is looking forward to helping to try and bring a 4A state championship to Lugoff-Elgin this spring, Branham said it is hard not to think about the next step after high school.

“This is what you work for ever since you started playing baseball,” he said of this opportunity. “Eventually, you want to play college baseball. This is a dream come true, really.”

 

Dorton: An easy recruit for Stingers

 

Justin Dorton has always looked up to his older brother Will, a 15th round draft choice by the Cincinnati Reds coming out of L-E only to honor his commitment to the College of Charleston. So, when older brother offered his younger sibling a chance to join him at FDTC, it was a no-brainer.

At the time of Justin Dorton’s commitment, Will was still on the Stingers’ staff. Even though Will has gone on to the Division I ranks, his younger brother never wavered in his pledge to McDonald.

 “With my brother being there,” Justin Dorton said of his decision, “I knew they had good coaches and it would be my best opportunity to win a championship.”

Even with Will Dorton in Charleston, Justin Dorton said with McDonald running the ship, the Stingers are in good hands. “He does a lot for his players development-wise and academic-wise,” he said while adding all three players going to the same school was not planned but something he is glad that worked out like it did. “That’s something that we were all looking for in a program.”

A tall, thin lefty, Dorton is entering his fourth varsity season at L-E. He is coming off a junior campaign in which, after a bumpy start, he righted things to finish with a 2-1 record. He threw 20.2 innings, fanned 16 batters and posted a 4.40 ERA.

Also a first baseman, Dorton batted .370 for the Demons in 2017 with 17 hits in 46 at bats in which he scored 10 runs while driving in five.

Dorton had an even better summer as he led Post 17 with a 6-0 record while having a 2.49 ERA. A control specialist, he struck out 19 batters while walking only four in 39.2 innings. His work at the plate was equally impressive. A first baseman, Dorton batted .403 with four doubles while driving in 22 runs and scoring 18.

Stokes said Dorton has been unflappable since he was brought up to the varsity as a freshman and was handed the ball to start the season opener in 2015.

“We saw something in that kid that said that kid was a competitor,” Stokes said of Justin Dorton. “He brought it every single day that he came out and nothing fazed him … nothing bothered him. You couldn’t tell if he was striking out people or, if people were hitting him.

“That’s an intangible that freshmen just don’t have. Even the (Forrest) Koumas’ and the (Trey) Delk’s that we’ve had here … Justin had a little more of that than they did, I thought.”

While not as heavy as those two former Demons who went on to pitch Division I baseball, Dorton said that once he gets under McDonald’s care, he will grow and mature. 

“I’m going to try and gain weight and put on some muscle,” he said of his goals once he gets to Florence. “They have a good weight-lifting program there and they said they are going to put me on that and get rolling and see if I can’t gain some velocity.”

As he has displayed throughout his young career, Dorton is the epitome of a crafty left-hander. He is usually around the strike zone and can move his pitches to both sides of the plate, oftentimes confounding batters.

“Justin’s a control guy who hits his spots and changes speed. He makes the ball move and that’s the name of his game,” Stokes said in critiquing Dorton. “He’s not a kid who is not going to go out there and come right at you. He is going to go after hitters and is very good at what he does.”

“I think my location is all right, right now. I have to keep working a little more down in the zone around the knees and get my velocity up a little bit,” Dorton said when giving a scouting report on his pitching.

“Talent-wise, it’s going to be a big jump but it’s going to be fun,” he added as to making the move to the next level in college. “The competition is going to be better but that is what you play the game for.”

While playing the game and posting impressive numbers is something all players enjoy, Stokes said Dorton is a player who is concerned about the bottom line and winning games. Dorton does not, the L-E skipper said, care who gets the glory.

“Justin is a team player. He cares about other people probably as much or more than he does about himself,” Stokes said. “That’s a great quality of his; he is unselfish. He will wait for his opportunity and when it comes, he will go out and make the most of it.”

Dorton’s philosophy and his feelings about this day served as a testament to what his coach said about him only a few minutes before he and his two teammates entered the weight room at L-E to be interviewed. 

 “It’s huge. It’s everything. You want to play the game until the game gives you up. It’s another opportunity to keep playing,” he said of signing to play college baseball while not forgetting there is still a final high school campaign to be played this spring. He addressed that in the same breath.

“I kind of get off track sometimes and focus on college,” he said with a smile. “There’s a quote which goes, ‘Be great where your feet are.’ That’s what we’re trying to do here. We want to be great here, win a state championship here and then go to college and try and win a championship there.”

 

 

Lynch: Uncovering a gem

 

His is a story of a player who was good at so many positions that it was tough to find the perfect one for Jay Lynch.

Unlike Branham and Dorton, Lynch did not participate in fall baseball due to his playing fullback for Matt Campbell’s football Demons. On the diamond, however, Stokes could play Lynch in the outfield or, at third base and not take a hit in either spot.

The eye-opener, however, came last spring at Dogfest at Camden High School. With his team searching for innings and someone who could throw strikes to close a busy four-game week, Stokes sent Lynch to the mound in the Saturday feature matinee at American Legion Park.

All the right-hander would do was come through with a dominating performance against the Bulldogs in which he allowed the hosts an infield single while fanning six in a complete game 5-0 Demon victory. Keeping his fastball low and away while using a “heavy” ball with plenty of backspin, Lynch finished the spring season for the Demons with a 4-0 record. He saw action in 13 games with three starts while striking out 32 batters in 30 innings of work.

Lynch’s work when he toed the rubber was a revelation for Stokes and L-E pitching coach Jeremy Ray.

“Who knew that Jay Lynch could throw in the upper 80s?” Stokes said. “He had his coming out party for us last year.”

Lynch did not stop there, however, as a member of the Kershaw County Post 17 Senior American Legion team this past summer, he fashioned a 5-2 pitching mark in helping the locals to the second round of the state playoffs. In 42.2 innings of work in the nine-inning summer contests, the 5-foot-10, 200-pounder struck out 44 batters while posting a 2.53 ERA.

Playing for the 17ers, Lynch drove in nine runs while crossing the plate nine times for Tyler Pike’s charges.

At the plate, Lynch hit for a .269 average for the Demons last spring while scoring seven runs. Almost lost in those numbers, Stokes said, is Lynch’s value with his glove.

“Jay’s a very good outfielder,” Stokes said. “He has one of the best ‘plus’ arms that we’ve had in our program since I’ve been here. He’s very accurate with his throws.”

Given his bursting on the scene last spring and summer, Lynch flew under the radar when it came to being seen by many baseball coaches. That should all change this season and, when he arrives at FDTC this summer.

“I knew I really wasn’t ready to make it to the top level of Division I and I knew (junior college) was the way to get there so that is why I made this decision,” he said of his college choice. The fact that he will be joined in the Pee Dee by two present and one former high school and longtime teammates did not hurt when it came for Lynch to make his call on a college.

“I’ve been playing with them all my life so, it means a lot to me,” he said.

Having been part of a Demon football team which has made the 4A state playoffs in each of the past two years, a baseball team which played in the state tourney and a Post 17 squad which won its first round series last July, Lynch has gotten accustomed to being a part of winning programs. He looks to continue that streak at FDTC.

“It’s a great place to go and win. They really take care of you there. P Mc (McDonald) is a really good guy,” he said of the reasons why he was attracted to the school. “They already have a lot of players who have signed to go to bigger schools so we’re definitely going to get the exposure there to help go someplace else.”

Last season, Lynch pitched the Demons to a win in the 4A state playoffs. Stokes, whose team is top-heavy with pitchers coming into the 2018 campaign, said he is excited to see where Lynch fits in on his team’s staff.

 “We’re real anxious how much of a contributor Jay will be on the mound for us this year. He’s going to get some starts,” he said. “I was very impressed with him on the mound last year.”

With a live arm, Stokes said Lynch has a high ceiling as to how much more he can improve off his performance of a year ago in both the spring and summer given the fact that he is now giving up football.

“I think it’s untapped,” Stokes said as to Lynch’s potential. “I expect Jay to have a better year this year than he had last year. And once he goes to college and concentrates on just being a baseball player, gets into the weight room gets all the nutrition things that colleges bring to the table, Jay might be 90 (miles per hour) guy before it’s all over. I really believe that. I’m just happy for him and where he is going.”

Possessing a relatively fresh arm, which does not have much wear and tear on it, Lynch said he is still working to get better and will continue to do so this year and then, when he gets to FDTC.

“It’s going to be a lot better competition there so you really have to bump up your game to compete with everybody there. It’s going to be a lot harder,” he said of the jump from high school to college baseball.

 “I have to work on my location, my velocity and just getting stronger.”

Stokes, for one, said he has no qualms as to Lynch’s improving each day. He said he is a young man who will do whatever it takes to succeed in whatever he is doing and wherever he is put on the field.

“Jay’s another of our kids who works hard but if you want Jay to say something to you, you better ask him something,” Stokes said with a smile. “I tell people all the time that our bus rides are some of the quietest rides that you will ever have because our kids don’t say anything; they just go about their business and play hard.”

Having the opportunity to continue playing baseball at the next level and doing it with a friend and a family member is the best of both worlds for Jay Lynch who is trying to stay grounded and first, concern himself with the matter at hand.

“It’s really hard not to be excited about it now but I’m going to stay focused for the high school season,” he said. “But it means a lot to me to be able to keep playing with the guys that I’ve been playing with my whole life.”

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