KNOXVILLE — Former East Hamilton standout Hunter Parker is gaining a reputation for his highlight-reel catches in center field for the East Tennessee State University baseball team, while former Walker Valley star Caleb Longley is turning heads with his power for the Buccaneers.
The ETSU juniors exhibit different strengths on the field, but they share a similar journey from area high schools to success at the NCAA Division I level that is defined by the stops they made in between.
Community college baseball offers little glamour, but it provided a launching pad for Parker and Longley in their maturation as players.
Parker is second with a .346 batting average in his first season with the Bucs after transferring from Chattanooga State, where he played for coach Greg Dennis. Longley is hitting .306 and is tied for the team lead with eight home runs in his second season at ETSU after two years at Cleveland State under coach Mike Policastro.
"I think that's something that has built me as a player," Longley said of his Cleveland State experience. "We enjoyed that route. That's our roots."
"I'm definitely a better play for going the junior college route," Parker added Tuesday in Knoxville, after making a pair of diving catches in the Bucs' 9-2 loss at Tennessee.
Both are staples in the lineup for ETSU, which wraps up a Southern Conference series at The Citadel today at 1 p.m. Both have professional baseball aspirations.
First, there were lessons to be learned at community college.
Longley received recruiting attention from Belmont, Tennessee and Memphis while at Walker Valley, but a back injury he suffered while playing football for the Mustangs forced him to re-evaluate. He chose Cleveland State, where his father, Steve Longley, had coached years before.
He agreed to redshirt, which allowed his back to heal fully before he returned to the field for the Cougars with more power in 2015.
"That was really a blessing in disguise," Longley said of his redshirt year. "After the year I redshirted, I wanted to focus on hitting the ball in the air and hitting it with a lot of power. That's something I started my freshman year at Cleveland State, and I think it's really transitioned here (at ETSU). I'm always trying to drive the ball and drive in runs."
Longley ripped 14 home runs for Cleveland State in 2015, and he took notice of a scrappy outfielder at rival Chattanooga State.
Parker had eyed the Tigers' program after playing summer ball for Chattanooga State assistant Joe Wingate and coming to a realization.
"Once my senior year at East Hamilton came around I realized, 'OK, I'm not as good as I thought I was,'" Parker said. "But I saw Chattanooga State having all the success they have right down the road and figured it would be a really great opportunity."
Parker and Longley squared off in 2015 before becoming teammates at ETSU this season.
"It's a pleasure being on the same team as opposed to playing against him," Longley said of Parker. "It was terrible. He was always on base, always stealing bags and scoring on us. He's a guy you hate to play against but love to play with."
Parker has turned his .488 on-base percentage at the TCCAA level into a .429 on-base percentage with the Bucs, good enough for second-best on the team.
The speedy center fielder credited the smooth transition to his time at Chattanooga State.
"I think I got set up really well with the conference that we played in," Parker said. "We played in a really tough conference in junior college. You play Walters State and Columbia State, where they always have good arms. That set me up well, and the coaches I played for, Coach Dennis and Coach Wingate, both set me up well for this level of ball."
Both players agree that their experience at community colleges in southeast Tennessee is a badge of honor.
"Going the junior college route, it makes it even more fun, because you don't get all the nice parks, nice buses and all the fancy equipment," Parker said. "Sometimes you have to go out to the tennis courts to practice on a rainy day. It's fun."
"I feel like it gives an extra side of toughness that the four-year guys may not necessarily have," Longley added.
Contact staff writer David Cobb at firstname.lastname@example.org.