CLEVELAND, Tenn. - Blake Barber followed his Cal State Fullerton baseball coaches to East Tennessee. But instead of the University of Tennessee, where Dave Serrano now is the head coach with Greg Bergeron and Gregg Wallis assisting, Barber wound up at Lee University.
He didn't get to the Cleveland school until January, but he quickly established himself as a team leader and went on to become the player of the year in the talent-filled Southern States Athletic Conference. He's batting .426 with 15 doubles, eight home runs, six triples, 60 runs and 60 RBIs.
Now is what he came for, however.
Barber is intensely motivated and has a 3.3 grade point average with just five classes left for graduation, but he admits that nothing drives him more than baseball. When he decided to leave Fullerton, the Modesto, Calif., resident wanted to find a place where he could help win a national championship.
His best friend from Modesto Junior College, Chris Avey, was already at Lee, and Barber picked coach Mark Brew's Flames over Oklahoma City University as his best ticket for an NAIA World Series title.
Both schools have become fixtures in the annual event at Lewiston, Idaho, and their last step for getting back there begins today in NAIA Opening Round series. Like OCU, second-ranked Lee is a host and plays tonight at 7 against the winner of today's noon game between Avila (from Missouri) and Bacone (from Oklahoma).
Freed-Hardeman and Missouri Baptist play at 3:30 in the five-team double-elimination series.
Pitching for Lee's Flames tonight will be a junior who probably will join Barber in leaving the program after this season. Kris Hall is 10-0 with a 1.37 earned run average after being identified before the season as one of the top 100 college prospects for this June's major league draft. He was No. 80 on that list and an All-SSAC first-teamer along with Barber, Corey Davis, Roberto Reyes and fellow pitcher Jose Samayoa.
Hall transferred last year from Cleveland State - the university in Ohio, not the nearby community college - and became the Flames' closer. The 6-foot-3 right-hander from Strongsville, Ohio, had eight saves with a 4-1 record and came into the fall practice season thinking he would continue in his reliever role. But during that time he was moved into a starting role and flourished.
"The ability to start has always been there, regardless of where we put him," Brew said. "We needed him more as a reliever last year, but this year we were open to let him try starting. It's a win-win for us and him. Succeeding in both roles gives him flexibility with the pro scouts, and starting gives him a chance to use all of his pitches. Last year it was mostly just fastballs because he threw so hard."
Hall said starting "is more of a thinking game" and less about "just reaching back" than closing is.
"I enjoy starting. It's your game. That's been new to me, but I think I've done OK," he said.
Barber has done just fine, too, not only in his play but in gaining acceptance from a talented bunch of teammates that included other second base candidates.
"I knew my roommate [Avey], and that's all, but everybody has just been very open-arms to me," Barber said. "I've had very good relationships with the guys here. I knew how bad they wanted to win a national championship, and I knew how much I wanted one. I knew this was going to be good fit for me."
Barber is naturally a vocal leader, but he first proved himself to his teammates as a worker.
After the coaching change at Fullerton, he was told that with 11 infielders he would be playing but not every day.
"I've always believed in myself, and I wanted to be fully involved in my senior season," he said.
Barber visited World Series host Lewis-Clark State as a high schooler, because his grandparents live in Idaho and encouraged him to consider the long-strong Lewiston program.
He hopes to be going there again in two weeks, but family considerations are secondary.
"I'm all business," he said, admitting that he hasn't seen much in the Cleveland area since arriving four months ago. "I didn't come here to see scenery. And even when my family comes to see me play, I go out to dinner with them and then I come back to get my rest. I'm a big routine person."
Lee has routinely finished in the top three of the NAIA World Series, though without a title yet, and that has been without winning the SSAC tournament outright. The Flames did that this year and looked very sharp doing it.
"We're playing well at the end of the season. You always want to say that," Brew said. "But we've got to take care of the process this weekend. We have a quality field of teams, and they're all eager to win this thing, too."