There was so much talent this year that the 2011 Ledger-Enquirer All-Bi-City baseball player and coach of the year awards each had to be split.
Columbus’ Will Solomon, a senior, and Kyle Carter, a junior, combined to help bring the Blue Devils a state championship with a combination of power hitting and clutch pitching to each earn All-Bi-City Baseball Co-Player of the Year honors.
And Columbus coach Bobby Howard and Glenwood coach Tim Fanning are All-Bi-City Baseball Co-Coaches of the Year for leading their teams to consecutive championships. Howard’s Blue Devils won their second straight Georgia High School Association Class AAA state title last week, and Fanning’s Gators won their third straight Alabama Independent School Association Class AAA title in May.
‘Put pressure on myself’
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Solomon’s postseason left Bi-City baseball coaches with little doubt he deserved top billing on this year’s team.
The Northwest Florida State College signee finished the year with a 2.59 ERA, 75 strikeouts and a 13-1 record while going 6-0 in the playoffs, with four of those wins coming in elimination games.
“I definitely put pressure on myself this year,” Solomon said. “I told myself that I would do whatever it takes to help my team the best I can, and I felt like I did that all year.”
Being named All-Bi-City Baseball Co-Player of the Year has a sentimental feel for Solomon, too. His half-brother, Brent Benefield, won the award in 2002 after a senior season at Hardaway in which he went 10-1 with a 1.03 ERA.
“That makes it special for me,” Solomon said. “Knowing that my brother won it, it’s nice to be able to keep that in the family.”
Carter earned was the All-Bi-City Baseball Player of the Year in 2010 after a strong performance on the mound, but it was his improved ability to get big hits when the Blue Devils needed them that made him stand out to opposing coaches this season.
Carter hit a Columbus single-season record 22 home runs in 2011, along with team-bests in batting average (.467), RBIs (47) and runs (51). He said he spent time developing his swing after his sophomore season and believes he could have hit even more home runs had opposing pitchers not walked him 27 times and pitched around him in 2011.
“I really think I could have had more than I did, but I was fortunate to get the pitches I did,” Carter said. “I worked really hard this year, and it paid off. Even my dad said he could tell I was swinging like a man now compared to last year. It was a big difference.”
Carter also was effective on the mound. He was 9-4 with a 2.33 ERA and a team-best 97 strikeouts.
Carter said he likely will make a verbal commitment to Georgia this summer.
Title No. 11 stands out
Howard has a long history of competing for and often winning championships, and he said it’s usually his team that makes him appear to be a great coach.
This year was no different as his squad went 30-9 and captured its second straight Class AAA title.
“We built this team from the inside out, and we were very strong right up the middle,” Howard said. “We knew that because of that we would be good. We didn’t know whether we would evolve into champions, but we knew we would be good. It just happened that people stepped up and it all came together for us. Those guys did all the work.”
The 2011 title was Columbus’ 11th, all of which have been won under Howard. But even among previous championship squads, the 2011 team stood out for its ability to persevere through injury and even without some of the defensive stars Howard said he has had in the past.
“This year was a total team effort,” Howard said. “These guys stepped up and found a way to be productive in every situation and found ways to win.
“They fought back and put us in Game 3 situations, and we were able to win in all of those.”
‘Played the game right'
Glenwood’s Fanning said this year’s march to a state title was a little more difficult than either of the two previous years.
“When you’re on top, you get everybody’s best every single time,” Fanning said. “It’s tough, and a lot of times you don’t realize how tough until they jump on your back. But my guys played the game right the entire year. We had some leaders step up and we had some seniors come out with phenomenal years.”
Fanning said his team finished 44-6 in large part due to his players’ selflessness. They sacrificed playing time and their egos for a state championship, the coach said.
“I’m just blessed to be surrounded by a group of young men who are willing to serve something bigger than themselves,” Fanning said. “We had seniors who don’t start, and they do everything in their power to do what’s best for the team. We don’t have people complaining on the bench. Everybody pulls for each other with the ultimate goal of serving the program. That makes it easy for me to coach a team like that.”