On national signing day Wednesday at Benton Arena, four Benton baseballers signed to play college baseball. Seniors Jack Woolbright (SAU Tech), Seth Mejia (Metropolitan Community College), Justin Mitchem (National Park College) and Jake Jones (University of Central Arkansas) all inked to play at the next level.
Woolbright said he chose the SAU Tech Rockets, located in Camden, because of its convenience.
“Mostly I was looking for something close to home,” he said. “I didn’t want to travel too far. I had a DI offer to play at Southern Illinois, but that was not something I was looking for.
“Basically I was told if I wanted to go JUCO (junior college), I would have to reach out because no one really thought that’s what I wanted to do, so I reached out to Coach (Tanner) Rockwell at SAU Tech. Probably an hour and a half later he was like, ‘Man, you don’t really have to do anything. That’s awesome, thank for reaching out, blah blah blah, I want to have you.’ I was like, ‘I want to come.’”
It doesn’t hurt that Woolbright knows someone on the Rockets roster – former Panther and current brother Jaden Woolbright.
“It’s homey,” Jack said of Tech. “It feels like here (Benton), something I want to do. It’s only 45 minutes away, it’s perfect.”
Benton Coach Mark Balisterri had a word to describe each one of his signees and Woolbright’s was passion.
“We feel that Jack plays the game every day, in practice and in games, like it’s his last one,” Balisterri said. “His passion for the game has made him a valuable part of our program over the past three years. He’s talented enough where we can play him all over the field. He can play any position. He even caught a couple times for us last year.”
Though catching won’t be Woolbright’s preference, nor first base, he’s game for anywhere else, including pitcher. At the plate last year, Woolbright hit .264 with a .426 on-base percentage, with two triples, 12 RBIs, 16 runs and five stolen bases.
“I did not plan on playing two-way by any means, but he (Rockwell) would like me to work out that way and see where it goes,” Woolbright said.
Though he said he considered Southern Arkansas, Little Rock, Seminole State and UCA, Mejia landed on Metropolitan Community College, located in Kansas City, Missouri. Metropolitan, aka Maple Woods CC, is where future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols attended before drafted by the MLB.
“Probably just the culture there, it’s really good, the environment and tradition,” Mejia explained. “Just the past they’ve had is really, really good. A good baseball team.”
Balisterri’s word for Mejia was commitment.
“Seth is dependable, dedicated and responsible,” the Coach said. “He’s going to do whatever it takes to help his team win. He’s been like that since he’s been in our program. He’s going to do everything he can do to be the best player he can be. With his great attitude and work ethic, that’s why he’s here today.”
Mejia was dynamite for the Panthers on the mound his junior season. He went 2-0 with an 0.83 ERA in 33.2 innings pitched, including three starts. He struck out 38 vs. just seven walks, giving up just 18 hits in that span for a minuscule 0.74 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched). Though he had just two plate appearances for a deep Panthers squad last year, he showed promise at the plate during summer ball.
“They’ve got me as a two-way,” Mejia said of Metropolitan. “They came and watched me this summer and I was pitching. They said good arm and all of that kind of stuff, and then I played the field the next game, and they said, ‘You have great skill in the field and can swing it.’”
Mitchem will be going to Coach Balisterri’s old school at National Park College.
“Just the environment,” Mitchem said of NPC. “It was small, closer to home. I like the team, practiced with them a couple of times. It was just a good click.”
Mitchem has bided his time with the Panthers and will get his shot with Benton his senior year after being limited to four at-bats last season. Balisterri’s word for Mitchem is patient.
“Justin dedicated himself to be bigger and stronger over the past couple of years and he’s done just that,” Balisterri said. “He’s one of the best-looking athletes that we got …”
After the Coach got a chuckle from the crowd, he said, “He’s a good-looking guy.”
On a more serious note, Balisterri said, “He works extremely hard every day and, ‘It’s your time to shine.’ I say for that for us and I say that for the next level. A great athlete.”
Mitchem looks to play the corner outfield for the Panthers this spring and the Nighthawks in college.
“Hopefully somewhere in the outfield, probably the corners (left and right field),” he said. “The coach said if I have my stick going, I’ll be in the corners, so hopefully that’s going to happen.”
Mitchem has high expectations for him and the Panthers this spring.
“I’ve been on varsity the past three years and waiting my time to get playing time,” he said. “I think I’ve earned my position and we’re going to win a state championship.”
As for Jones choosing Division I UCA over the likes of Louisiana Tech, Louisiana-Lafayette and others, it was a family thing at first.
“My father played there so that had a lot of influence on it,” Jones, also a star linebacker for the Benton football team, said. “When I got there and went on a visit, I just instantly connected to the coaches and that was the reason I picked it.”
Jones shined on the mound and at the plate for the Panthers last season. Pitching-wise, Jones was 5-0 with a 1.01 ERA, 0.87 WHIP with 82 strikeouts in 48.1 innings pitched against 27 walks. He gave up just 15 hits in those innings. At the plate, Jones batted .322 with eight doubles and a team-leading 20 RBIs and 21 walks while playing third and first base.
Along with those numbers on the field, Balisterri’s word for Jones was competitor.
“When UCA’s coaches called me and asked why I thought Jake need to go play for them, ‘I say because he’s a bulldog,’” the Coach said. “He gets on the mound, at the plate and digs in. He does whatever he has to do to either get people out or get on base. Or make a play. That’s what he’s done for us the last three years.
Jones credits the Panthers for making him the player he is.
“It’s been awesome to play in that nice stadium (Everett Field at Panther Stadium) in front of a big crowd,” he said. “Of course the coaches, we’ve got the best coaches in the state.”