JMU Baseball Goes Local
Valley Boys Bolster Madison’s Recruiting Class
HARRISONBURG — With just three innings allotted to him, and James Madison assistant baseball coach Ted White in the stands during a May 6 game against East Rockingham, Stonewall Jackson High School left-hander Colton Harlow knew he had to leave an impression if he wanted to play college baseball for the Dukes.
Harlow – a slightly built 5-foot-10, 140-pound Mount Jackson native – did what he does best. He struck out six East Rock batters, among them previously unconquered rival Shannon Cross twice.
Harlow reached the innings limit instituted by the Virginia High School League after throwing a complete game three days earlier. His appearance was brief but effective.
“That game did seal the deal,” said White, JMU’s recruiting coordinator. “What I was coming in to see was how he pitched on short rest. I wanted to see if the velocity was still there, I wanted to see if the control was still there. He passed both those tests very well.”
When he left the field after one particularly impressive inning, Harlow said catcher Bradley Henschel proclaimed, “If they don’t take you now, then they must be blind.”
White’s eyesight was fine, and he was seeing a future college pitcher.
“[White] went up to my mom and dad and said, ‘I like what I see, I’ll be giving ya’ll a call,’” Harlow said.
A few days later, Harlow committed to James Madison, one of three central Shenandoah Valley players in a spring recruiting class of nine, including six pitchers. A fourth local star – Spotswood left-hander Tucker McCoy, who tore a knee ligament (ACL) playing basketball in January and did not play baseball this spring – signed in November, adding another arm to a pitching-heavy class that totals 13 players.
“It’s a definite focus,” White said of pitching. “Right now, we need to find a way to gain quality innings, and part of what we’ve been waiting for is a little bit of the scholarship turnover on the offensive side so that we can reinvest it into the pitching. This is one of the first classes where we feel like we’ve done a good job of starting that process.”
White said the Dukes will lose about seven players next season, including senior third baseman Ty McFarland, signed by the New York Yankees, and junior pitcher Chris Huffman, who signed with the San Diego Padres with one year of eligibility left at Madison.
JMU targeted pitching in an effort to bolster a staff that had a 7.54 ERA, worst in the eight-team Colonial Athletic Association.
White said Madison didn’t sign local players this season just for the sake of signing local players – it just so happened that the Dukes found some of the reinforcements in their backyard.
“Our need that year is what really determines how hard we go after certain positions in the Valley and outside the Valley,” White said. “We’re in need of some left-handed arms.”
Harlow, McCoy and another local recruit, Turner Ashby’s Eric Yankey, all left-handed, will likely contribute for JMU as freshmen next season. White said Harlow and Yankey project as relievers early on, while McCoy could settle in as an occasional starter.
“The fact that they’re local is one of those unwritten rules in sports,” White said. “You need to be able to keep the best local talent around. If you cannot do that, you’re going to be chasing your tail out on the recruiting trail.”
Harlow, with a fastball sitting in the mid-to-low-80 mph range, reminds White of former Duke James Weiner, who tied the JMU record for career relief appearances with 81 from 2008-11. Yankey, who went 8-1 with a 0.79 ERA and 97 strikeouts over 61 2/3 innings during the regular season, has a dominant curveball that will be used to neutralize left-handed hitters. McCoy possesses pinpoint control, which White likes.
“Our expectation for him is to try and compete right away for a starting position midweek,” White said. “[We want him] to come in and be that midweek starter, Mr. Consistency for us.”
The fact that JMU recruited several Shenandoah Valley players in one class reinforces the quality of baseball in the area, McCoy said.
“I think that the Valley is known for baseball,” said McCoy, who will begin throwing on July 20 and expects to be cleared by Sept. 15 when JMU begins fall practice. “They’ve faced good teams and Division I batters. There is a lot of good talent coming from the Valley. I think all of us are ready to make that transition. If [White] thinks that a guy from the Valley will be able to pan out well, he’ll definitely look at him.”
The Dukes this spring also inked TA third baseman Evan Hanifee, who was named to the 3A all-state team Wednesday as a utility player. He likely will not be playing much infield for the Dukes, at least early on, he said.
About a month ago, White approached Hanifee about playing catcher, a position the 5-10, 190-pound left-handed hitter never played in high school. It was an easy sell, Hanifee said, when he realized the path to early playing time could come with the position change.
“I was open to it,” said Hanifee, who expects to catch for Clover Hill of the Rockingham County Baseball League near the end of the summer. “It gives me a better chance to get on the field as a freshman. I love getting new challenges and having to challenge myself and putting myself out there to try a new thing.”
After he went out and bought a catcher’s mitt, Hanifee said, he went to work learning the spot he hasn’t played since he was 13 years old. His father, Sean, the coach at Turner Ashby, brought the school’s pitching machine home and the two have been working on blocking and receiving pitches in the garage part of the basement.
“The toughest part so far is trying to make myself block the ball instead of trying to catch it like I do in the infield,” Evan Hanifee said.
If the switch works, Hanifee will provide a power bat from the left-side for the Dukes at catcher, balancing a lineup that was usually right-handed heavy.
“I think he has the power to play in college,” said White, who coaches the catchers at JMU. “I think pitch-by-pitch and focus and learning how to attack the pitcher… is what he’s really going to lack. He hasn’t seen the level of pitching consistently that we have in the CAA. I think right now the power is there, the ability to recognize spin early is there, but I’m not ready to make any crystal ball judgments on the bat until I see him work against our guys.”
JMU coach Spanky McFarland could not be reached for comment Wednesday.