Bulldogs Beat

Houston County ‘throwdown’ at NCAA Regionals puts these two former teammates on display

Mercer pitcher from Houston County talks about community support

Mercer Bears pitcher Tanner Hall said he's excited to play against some former Houston County teammates and that it's "big" for the community. The Bears take on the Georgia Bulldogs Friday at 7 p.m. in the NCAA Regionals.
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Mercer Bears pitcher Tanner Hall said he's excited to play against some former Houston County teammates and that it's "big" for the community. The Bears take on the Georgia Bulldogs Friday at 7 p.m. in the NCAA Regionals.

Tony Locey and Tanner Hall first got to know each other as teammates. Hall spent four seasons at Houston County High School, Locey only one. They bonded loosely and gained respect for each other on the baseball field.

Each moment on the field, however, made for unforgettable moments.

These two were rotation mates and they’d take the mound with D.L. Hall — who doesn’t have a bad record for himself as a first-round MLB draftee and Baltimore Oriole minor leaguer — sandwiched in between. In fact, it was rather formidable. It might’ve been one of Middle Georgia’s greatest spectacles for a few spring months in 2016, too.

“For a coach, it was ‘don’t screw it up,’” former Houston County coach, now assistant principal Jason Brett said. “It was giving them the ball and saying ‘we’ll see you when the game’s over.’ That team fed off of each other, was competitive and it was like a bunch of alpha males.”

Locey and Hall had a contrast in pitching styles. Matched by his demeanor, Locey touts his high-velocity fastball and dares an opposing hitter to hit a 98 mph dart. Hall’s varying approach brings him success, and a deceiving changeup leads his arsenal.

Most of the time, Locey and Hall found themselves in the same game, whether it be in starting or relief capacities. Once one of these three arms took the mound at the “Bear’s Den,” a Houston County loss was rather rare in its run to a GHSA state championship.

Oh yeah, that team had some guy named Jake Fromm, too. He’s the kid who is seen all over television for playing in the Little League World Series. And Georgia’s star quarterback.

“You always knew we were going to win,” Hall said. “It was a lot of winning and fun. We get told we were one of the best staffs ever in the state of Georgia.”

Three years later and 116 miles north, top-seeded Georgia’s Locey and Mercer’s Hall oppose each other at Foley Field. They’ll be back on the big stage pitching in the NCAA regionals in a quest toward the College World Series. Ahead of the 7 p.m. first pitch (ESPN2), about 60 of their high-school classmates, according to Locey, are making the trip to revive the “HoCo Locos” student section for an evening.

“This is big for our hometown, Houston County fans who love watching us play and grow up,” Locey said. “It’s going to be a packed out crowd and a Houston County throwdown.”

Mercer pitcher Tanner Hall talks about the Bears' season and SoCon Championship. Mercer plays Georgia in the first round of the NCAA tournament Friday night.

The Glory Days

Maybe coincidence lined up their starting assignments to open postseason play. Georgia head coach Scott Stricklin cited Locey’s routine of pitching Friday nights through the season’s late stages. Mercer head coach Craig Gibson saw opportunity for Hall after his strong showing in the Southern Conference tournament.

Those qualities to warrant a Game 1 start were first seen during those inevitable sun-soaked afternoons on Hwy. 96. Locey and Hall oozed competitiveness, as did the rest of their teammates. It made practice enjoyable after a lengthy academic schedule. A vision of hoisting a championship trophy was realized, and came true with a few playoff series sweeps.

They were unhittable and caught the eye of nearly every coach who made his way to recruit one of these talents. They must’ve made their way in droves, too.

“I’m very familiar with Tanner, and that club — with Tanner, Tony, D.L. Hall and Jake Fromm — was a heck of a team,” Stricklin said. “That rotation is one of the best you’ll see.”

Once Houston County made it to the title, it came down to a rubber match against Loganville and a once-in-a-lifetime memory to cap it off. Houston County clinched it with a 12-0 victory, and Hall allowed one hit in a complete-game showing. His final pitch resulted in a flyout to D.L. Hall and a mob of Bears celebrated at home plate in front of a packed-out crowd.

“One moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life is winning that state championship,” Locey said.

Leaps in success lead to Game 1 start

Locey stepped onto campus in Athens and those with an idea of his repertoire raved over his velocity. He struggled with command, however, as most pitchers do with higher velocities.

After moving back-and-forth between the rotation and bullpen, a strong offseason with pitching coach Sean Kenny made something click. A massive improvement in results occurred. His ERA sat at 4.28 and toward the bottom half of his Bulldog pitching mates’ statistics. A season later, Locey is a force across the SEC, an ace alongside Emerson Hancock and sports a 2.68 ERA.

“I’m a different pitcher,” Locey said. “We’ve talked about getting back here and hosting again from the beginning. We’re the best team in this region, we just have to come out and play our game.”

Hall, although with an eventful caveat, carries a similar collegiate timeline to his former teammate.

Hall’s chapter opened and abruptly closed in Savannah when Armstrong State was purchased by Georgia Southern and its baseball program disbanded. He began to look at transfer options after his freshman season, and the Bulldogs even took a look. Stricklin exchanged a few messages with Hall, but that was the extent.

An opportunity to return home and play for Gibson arose. Hall didn’t spend too much time pondering on it. Gibson spoke to former Armstrong State coach Calvain Culberson prior to the program’s fold, but already knew his intentions: “Man if there comes a chance, I want Tanner Hall. I’m gonna get him. No hard feelings but I’m gonna get him. I want him.”

While practicing at Foley Field Thursday, he felt validated in his choice as Mercer found itself with 35 wins and in an NCAA regional. Hall’s sophomore season, however, was rather tumultuous and he sunk toward the back of the pitching staff. In eight appearances, his ERA uncharacteristically stood at 7.71.

Less than a year later, those fortunes turned to be exactly the opposite. Hall has proven to be a workhorse for Mercer. That was on display in the SoCon tournament as Mercer had to win five consecutive games for an automatic bid. Hall pitched seven innings in Saturday’s victory, followed it up with three innings to close Sunday’s victory and earned the “No. 1 pitcher” moniker from Gibson.

Hall pulled off a Madison Bumgarner-esque move like it was the 2014 World Series. Hall put “mind over matter,” along with a heavy dose of treatment with cupping, stimulation and massage.

“It’s really amazing,” said Gibson, after telling assistant coach Brent Shade that Hall was unbeatable in his relief appearance. “We had some guys step up, and Tanner was the first one in the pen. He’s always given us a chance to win.”

Facing off

Locey and Hall’s cell phones flooded with messages and calls Wednesday afternoon. The matchup of former teammates came to fruition, and Houston County took notice. There’s enough of a small-town feel to where their parents are likely asked about baseball during a short trip to the grocery store, so word spreads easily.

Their Twitter feeds blew up. Many people in Middle Georgia began to make plans for a trip up to Athens. Those around the Warner Robins area show qualities of a tight-knit community, and Brett said he heard the word “proud” frequently.

“It makes the moment cooler, but playing here in a regional is a dream of itself,” Hall said. “I guess the nerves will kick in tomorrow.”

Locey doesn’t believe it’ll be different than any other game, because he’s played college games against friends before. Once these two throw their first pitches, however, there’ll be a unique distinction.

They’ll be in different uniforms and in opposition for the first time. A surge of support, however, will come from those at Houston County who know what comes on a magnified stage.

“They’re both big game pitchers,” Brett said. “They’re never scared and always want the baseball.”