Guerry Clegg commentary: CSU's Greg Appleton reaching 600 wins a group effort

March 22, 2014 

Greg Appleton had neither the time nor the inclination to celebrate his 600th win as Columbus State's baseball coach. Sixteen hours after that milestone achievement, a 6-4 victory over Francis Marion, Appleton and the Cougars were back at it Saturday playing a doubleheader at Ragsdale Field.

The significance of reaching 600 wins did not escape him.

"Actually, I didn't know that was even coming up, to tell you the truth," he said. "But it's nice. You see other coaches do it and you wonder 'where am I on that list?' "

While the record is attached to his name, Appleton knows it's a collective accomplishment of a few hundred players and a loyal coaching staff spanning 17 years.

Win number 600 was bound to come this year given that Appleton entered this season with 578 wins at CSU. But it came perhaps sooner than anyone might have expected after a 3-5 start. The fact that Friday's win was the Cougars' 19th in 22 games since that troublesome start made it that much sweeter.

"That makes it even better, that we're playing well and having a great season," Appleton said before the first game. "I don't want anything to be a distraction for the season. We're playing well. I don't really look at it as number 600. It was win number 22. That's what it's about."

The fact that he's been at CSU for 17 years is what causes him to reflect. That wasn't the original plan. He played for Georgia and then began his coaching career there. He was fortunate to have two aces, Derek Lilliquist and Cris Carpenter, who pitched the Bulldogs into the 1987 College World Series. Three years later, the Bulldogs won the College World Series.

That success opened the door for Appleton to restart the baseball program at Young Harris College. The Mountain Lions went 127-74 in four seasons and made the state junior college playoffs three times.

CSU had an opening after the 1997 season, and Bobby Howard, who had left Columbus High the year before to coach at Middle Georgia, seemed like a lock to get the job.

But Howard decided he wanted to return to Columbus High, so that led Herbert Greene, then the Cougars' athletic director, to look at Appleton.

The Cougars went to the NCAA tournament in Appleton's first year. Four seasons later, with a team stacked with players who could have played in the SEC, the Cougars won 48 games, then a school record, and captured the Division II World Series.

Greene expected bigger programs to come calling. But Appleton never sought to springboard from CSU to the big time. That includes Georgia, which twice has had an opening for a head coach. A few people have called, and he has told them all the same thing.

"I'm happy here."

"Seventeen years have blown by," Appleton said. "I can't believe I've been here that long. A lot has happened along the way, I decided that this is a pretty good place to be. This is a good job. I think a lot of coaches would look at this as a good job. It's a great place to be. You can win here. You have great support."

Athletic director Jay Sparks said CSU is fortunate to have Appleton.

"Baseball is always going to be good at Columbus State," Sparks said. "But we have a chance to be extremely successful as long as we have Greg Appleton as head coach."

It's more than the job, though. Life is good. In the offseason before that national champion, Appleton and his wife Anne traveled to Russia to adopt their daughter Kaylee.

She's now 14 and fully immersed into CSU. Anne started taking pictures of baseball games as a hobby. She now works part-time in the sports information office.

While life is simple and he doesn't have the pressure of a large fan base or six-figure contract, that doesn't mean he is any less driven to win.

"You have to have that expectation to win."

Win number 601 came Saturday in the first game of the doubleheader, and was somewhat a microcosm of the season to date. The Cougars trailed 3-1 in the fifth inning, then exploded for five runs in the fifth and four each in the seventh and eighth to win 14-5. He described this team as "resourceful."

"We play pretty good defense and pitch pretty good," he said. "We don't have dominant pitching. We throw strikes and they compete and make the plays. We're not the greatest offensive team in the world, but then we'll have innings where we hit really well."

Appleton is just as competitive as ever but considerably more relaxed. Comes with age, he said. He'll be 52 next month.

"I think I'm a lot more patient than I used to be," he said. "I'm just older and understand what they're going through a little more."

Appleton has never tried to be the players' friend. But many of his former players are now in their 30s with careers and families of their own.

Many have returned to visit or to watch some games. One of those players is Andrew Ginther, the catcher on that national championship team.

"I think Greg has a talent for knowing when to step in and knowing when to just let things be," Ginther said. "That's a real leadership talent itself."

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com.

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