Eight years ago, life was pretty good for Keith Gorman. He was the head baseball coach and athletic director at Holy Spirit High School and had built the Spartans into one of the top programs in the Cape-Atlantic League. There wasn’t any discernable reason to go and upset the apple cart.

But Gorman did a lot more than just upset the apple cart, he sent it careening down an embankment and watched all its contents fly out. His dad, Dennis, said he was crazy for thinking about taking over the Cumberland County College baseball team, a program that rarely made any headlines or attracted top tier talent.

“Everybody was really supportive of me once I made the decision, and make no mistake, my father, as soon as I told him I was going to do it, he was very supportive. I’m the man I am today because of him and all the other great leaders who have been in my life. But, it was a little risky. Cumberland County College, athletically, I don’t think too many people knew about it and the baseball program had been in trouble for about 10 years. The thing that drew me there was they had a great young athletic director who was serious about turning the place around. They had just built a brand new facility, it was an area I thought I could recruit to, and I was looking to make the move to college at some point. But, it was tough leaving Holy Spirit, I was the athletic director there, and one of my great friends — Bill Walsh — he had turned the football program around there, and we had won back-to-back-to back Cape-Atlantic League championships in baseball and were really pushing for a state run. It was tough to leave, but ultimately I’m glad I made the move, even though I loved my time at Holy Spirit,” Gorman said recently, before his team qualified for another National Junior College Athletic Association Division III World Series.

“It was a tough decision because it was late. We were already into September. We were already in the weight room (at Holy Spirit) and that was the toughest part, knowing I was going to have to tell those guys at some point. I remember when I got the call from the (CCC) athletic director, it was on a weekend, and I told him I would get back to him. I went home and talked to my wife, but I knew that as soon as I got off the phone with him I was going to accept the position. I just had that feeling in my gut that it was the right thing. I was excited for the challenge.”

Gorman certainly has been up to the challenge, as he’s averaged more than 35 wins per season and in less than a decade had racked up more than 300 career victories.

Most high school players have dreams of playing NCAA Division I baseball, and some might think of junior college baseball as a step backward — a place where guys go who aren’t good enough to make a Division I roster, or who maybe had bad grades in high school. And, while juco baseball can be a great option for a player who has struggled academically and whose report card doesn’t match up to the level of his scouting report, there are plenty of high academic players who are using junior colleges in South Jersey as a spring board to an NCAA scholarship offer.

Cumberland County College has several players on this year’s team who have earned scholarships, and other jucos around the area — such as Atlantic Cape and Rowan at Gloucester County (RCGC), have some very talented players. The Roadrunners also earned a berth in the NJCAA World Series and feature players like Anthony Capasso of Mainland — who helped the Northfield Cardinals win an Atlantic County Baseball League title last summer — Joe Marino of St. Joseph-Hammonton, and Matt Stil, an outstanding pitcher at Cherokee High last spring. Atlantic Cape features guys like Nick Atohi of Mainland and Jacob Brennan of St. Joseph, who went 6-2 with a 2.95 ERA this spring for the Buccaneers.

“You have to get good players, I don’t think that’s any secret. And once we get them in here, we have to develop them. The best ways to develop them are through the weight room, which is a staple of our program, and then on the practice field. I’ve always said that if they are doing their job in the classroom, the field becomes a little bit easier. The wins and losses take care of themselves if you’re doing those things right,” Gorman said. “It is a great stepping stone and I think people would be surprised at how good the baseball is. We have three arms right now who are potential draft guys (this year), one probably for sure, and we’re not the only juco around like that.”

Many times, Gorman said, a kid coming out of high school simply isn’t ready for college baseball, even with vast experience on travel teams and in summer leagues. College baseball is a different animal, and when a player chooses a four-year school right away, sometimes he has to sit the bench for a year or two behind an older, proven player. Playing junior college baseball right after graduating from high school gives a player valuable experience and can make a player ready to step into a four-year college program ready to contribute right away.

“I think one of the biggest things for high school guys getting into college baseball — and one of the reasons they might sit the bench for a couple years — one of the biggest things that high school kids struggle with is the speed of the college game. People don’t always understand how much faster the game is. Guys run faster, they throw harder, just all around it’s a major adjustment for high school players to make,” Gorman said. “The speed of the game is double what it was in high school, and not everybody can catch up right away. So, getting some extra practice time in the fall that junior colleges allow is a great way to kind of bridge that gap.”

The biggest drawback to coaching at the junior college level is the staff has to continuously recruit. A player is only eligible to play for two seasons, so Gorman and his staff have to always be on the lookout for guys who can fill positions immediately.

“We are in the business of recruitment, so we need to put ourselves out there and show the value we bring to any high school or college transfer student-athlete. We have a good reputation now, so it’s a little bit easier to get them on campus now than it was seven or eight years ago, but we have a nice brochure that shows where all these guys are going. We have a ton of guys out there who are playing at all different levels, including professional baseball,” Gorman said. “Those are the stories we want to share with our potential recruits, ‘look at where these guys are now, that’s going to be you someday if you come in, buy in, change your body through the weight room and develop, that’s going to be you someday.’ That’s our biggest selling tool. Not everybody has the kind of success we’ve had in moving players on to great four-year universities and pro ball.”

Make no mistake, for guys like Gorman, assistant coach Mike Freund and the other assistants, big-time success at the junior college level doesn’t lead to an extravagant lifestyle. It’s a grind every day for a modest salary, and sometimes coaches are asking a lot of their families to understand their passion for the game and why they love spending so much time at the ballpark.

“He puts all his time and effort into it. He’s from Absecon, so he has about a 45-minute drive every day and he’s there from the time we get there for school until the time we leave practice, and sometimes even later. He puts all his time and effort in,” said sophomore Dylan Scaranda, an Absegami graduate who is committed to play at Campbell University in North Carolina next year. “The big thing that a lot of us focus on is getting our grades up. Out of high school your grades might not be the best, but that’s where a lot of the (scholarship) money is at. These schools aren’t giving huge athletic scholarship because there isn’t that much money for baseball, so a big thing with coach Gorman is helping us get our grades up.”

“I think baseball guys are a little nuts. They are unique people, and the game is most the frustrating game in the world at times, but also the most rewarding. You have to really do it because you love it,” Gorman said. “Mike Freund’s wife gave my wife (Emily) a sign that is hung up prominently in our living room that says, ‘please pardon this marriage for baseball season.’ That is exactly what goes on. We have three young kids at home who are a handful and she is pretty much raising them on her own during baseball season. I love her so much and am so thankful for her. I can’t do what I do out here without her.”

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