Dalton at a distance: Dalton native Rodney Hennon's Georgia Southern baseball program has plenty of local connections

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Jun. 22—As the stage was set for Georgia Southern University's baseball program to host a regional game in the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history, head coach Rodney Hennon couldn't help but notice the connections his team had to his hometown on the opposite end of the state.

Georgia Southern is in Statesboro, some 300 miles from the northwest corner of the state where his former home of Dalton lies.

The Dalton native and Dalton High School graduate looked out onto the field in one of the highlights of arguably his best season of his stellar 23-year coaching career at Georgia Southern and saw a couple of Whitfield County boys, just like him.

"I looked at one of the guys and said, 'Who would have thought, we have a starting pitcher from Tunnel Hill and starting catcher from Dalton?'" Hennon recalled."It's funny how things work out sometimes."

The pitcher was Northwest Whitfield graduate Ty Fisher. The catcher was Dalton High's JP Tighe.

The result, in Georgia Southern's first time hosting a regional earlier this month? A complete-game shutout from Fisher in an 8-0 win over UNC-Greensboro.

"While we were getting ready, it wasn't exactly something I was thinking about in the moment because you get so locked in during that time," Tighe said."As it ended and he got a standing ovation as he walked off, I just thought 'Wow.' We're both from Dalton, coach Hennon is from Dalton, and this is something that we're never going to forget for the rest of our lives."

Tighe caught the game for Fisher and also turned in two doubles and an RBI.

"Two boys from Dalton just made a mark in front of a lot of people," Tighe said.

That's not even including those two boys' coach.

Hennon got the job in Statesboro before the 2000 season. In 23 seasons, he's led the Eagles to 30 or more wins in 21 seasons, and one of those was cut to just 16 games because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After playing at Dalton and then collegiately at Western Carolina University, Hennon took the job at Georgia Southern in part because the community feel reminded him of his hometown.

"We really had it pretty good growing up in Dalton," Hennon said. "There was a real sense of support from the community. That's always been the case there, and that's where I see some similarities in Statesboro."

Tighe was recruited to Georgia Southern after his 2018 graduation from Dalton High in part because of that same feel.

"I took one visit, and I had a couple of looks from other schools, but once I got to Georgia Southern it seemed like the right fit. With coach Hennon being from Dalton and his personality and with everything he stands for, it was a great place for me to grow not just as a player but as a person," Tighe said. "I got that same vibe from day one, and I still feel that way four years later."

Statesboro began to feel more like Dalton-south for Tighe once Fisher arrived on campus before the 2022 season. He spent a couple of seasons at Tennessee Tech before transferring to Georgia Southern.

"I pick at those guys," Hennon said. "We joke about things from home or people that we all know."

That recipe, spearheaded by a pitcher, catcher and coach from Whitfield County, led to a breakout season for an already strong program under Hennon.

Fisher missed three weeks during the season after an injury when a line drive was belted back at him, but he returned in March and served as the Friday night starter for the squad with a team-low ERA of 2.58. Tighe had 18 hits and 12 RBIs while posting a fielding percentage of .994, finishing with just one error all season as a catcher and outfielder.

Georgia Southern was seeded 16th nationally for the NCAA tournament, grabbing the final of 16 host spots for the tourney.

After Fisher's complete game shutout, in which he allowed just four hits and struck out six, Georgia Southern dropped two games to fall out of the tournament. Notre Dame, which delivered the Eagles the first of those two losses, knocked off No.1 national seed Tennessee in the Super Regional before reaching the College World Series.

"It was a special year for sure, and I think a big step for our program," Hennon said.

"We knew that this was going to be a special team, and we said from the get-go that we wanted to leave a mark," Tighe said.

The last time Georgia Southern made the field in the NCAA tournament, the Eagles had plenty of flair from Hennon's hometown too.

The 2014 squad had Stryker Brown and Garren Palmer, both Dalton grads, on the roster.

Hennon said he and his staff don't go out of their way to recruit Northwest Georgia kids, but his relationships in the area help Georgia Southern dig a little deeper on any prospective player.

"Growing up there, I still have a lot of friends from the area, so when we've gotten players from the area, I think we're able to find out more about the character of the players," Hennon said. "They're able to tell us a little more about them off the field."

"It also helps with kids from the area that have come and had a good experience, it gives you a better chance with the next guy," Hennon said.

It also helps if Hennon went to high school with your parents.

Hennon has known 2022 Dalton High School graduate Brady Pendley for years through his parents, Tom and Cami. Hennon went to Dalton with the pair before his 1989 graduation. A standout pitcher, Pendley is set to further the Dalton connection as a freshman next spring, with both Fisher (junior) and Tighe (senior) set to return.

"I'm blessed and thankful for my career," Hennon said. "I've spent most of my life either in Dalton or Statesboro."