Coming into this year, Dalton native Rodney Hennon was looking forward to perhaps his most promising season as Georgia Southern’s head baseball coach.
The Eagles finished 33-27 for another winning year for Hennon and the program — Georgia Southern has never had a losing record in his 13 years of leadership — but fell short of the Southern Conference title after winning it in 2011. Because of that and a winning percentage lower than what the Eagles have typically enjoyed in recent seasons, some might think Hennon would consider this year one of his most disappointing.
Not him, though.
“I was as proud of this team as any I have coached,” Hennon said in a recent phone interview. “They fought through a lot of adversity. We made some strides as the season went on and played some great baseball in the conference tournament. Our team fought hard all year.”
It would be safe to say something was twisting the team’s collective arm.
In 2011, Eagles right fielder Victor Roache set the NCAA record books ablaze and had Major League Baseball scouts mouths watering with his sophomore season. The 6-foot-1-inch, 235-pound Roache led college baseball with 30 home runs, establishing a new Southern Conference record and cementing his status as a consensus NCAA All-American.
And earlier this month, Roache signed with the Milwaukee Brewers after being selected 28th overall in the 2012 MLB First-Year Player Draft.
But six games into the Eagles’ 2012 season, he dove to make a defensive play and broke his wrist. He ended up missing the rest of the year, and Georgia Southern’s fortunes went to sleep as soon as the anesthesia hit Roache for surgery.
“Obviously, we had to adjust a little bit,” said Hennon, who played at Dalton High before going on to a standout college career at Western Carolina, where he also was head coach for two seasons.
“It was a team that dealt with some adversity this year.”
One player who dealt with that adversity better than others was sophomore designated hitter Garren Palmer, a 2009 Dalton High graduate.
A four-year starter for the Catamounts who was selected as The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Baseball Player of the Year his junior and senior seasons, Palmer started just 16 games, but he was particularly strong down the stretch. He finished the year with a .309 batting average after leading the Eagles on a run through the Southern Conference tournament that ended with a 10th-inning triple in a championship-game loss to Samford.
Palmer’s play in the tournament earned him selection to the Southern Conference All-Tournament Team.
“Garren is a guy when you look at his season, it exemplified our team,” Hennon said. “He struggled a little bit the first half of the season. It is hard sometimes when you aren’t an everyday player to get into a rhythm. That was the case with Garren. He kind of struggled to get things going. One thing about Garren is he has a tremendous work ethic. He is going to give you 100 percent.
“He hung in there all year, and down the strech when we needed him most, he came through for the team. He gave us some great at-bats late in the season and really had a great tournament for us.”
Another player who had to step up for the Eagles was 2010 Dalton grad Stryker Brown. Hennon’s nephew, Brown took over the right field role after Roache was injured and excelled on defense, making just two errors this season. However, he struggled to find his rhythm at the plate, finishing with a .257 average.
Brown was an infielder in his high school days and was listed as such on the Eagles’ roster going into this season.
“When Roache went down, we had already started working with Stryker in the outfield, and we tried him in that right field spot,” Hennon said. “He got a little confidence out there and had a great defensive year. (He) struggled in the second half of the year, but he got some valuable experience this year.”
Experience will be a key word for Georgia Southern next year. The team had just three seniors and started three freshmen this spring. However, there will be big holes to fill, because those three seniors — left-handed pitcher Jaret Leverett, infielder Eric Phillips and right-handed pitcher Chris Beck — were all taken in the first 15 rounds of the draft.
“We have a lot of guys coming back, and you just hope they continue to develop,” Hennon said. “In terms of pro prospects, we won’t have the same numbers, but we will have a good group of baseball players. The guys we lost are going to be some pretty big shoes to fill.”
Still, success is sure to follow. Since coming to Statesboro, the Eagles have won 30 or more game in every season under Hennon. He is the second most successful coach in Georgia Southern history and has a career record of 554-348 including his years at Western Carolina.
The son of Lamar and Sue Hennon, he and his wife Kim have two sons, Walker, 13, and Carter, 7, as well as a daughter, Keeli, 11.