by Aaron Burns
At first glance, SouthLake Christian Academy baseball player Palmer Coleman doesn’t look any different than he did a year ago.
Sure, he added some height to his lanky frame, but Coleman’s changes from 2010 to 2011 have mostly come from within. In past seasons, a strikeout at the plate or an error in the outfield would rattle Coleman and take him out of his desired mind-set, which is to do whatever he can do to help the Eagles win.
Now, as a senior and a force to be reckoned with on a team boasting a 19-3 record and a 12-1 mark in Metrolina Athletic Conference play, Coleman no longer sweats the small stuff. Every at-bat is a chance to absolve an earlier mistake, and every mistake leaves his mind when he gets that next chance.
It’s all part of the maturation process Coleman knows he’s undergone. And while he might stress over adversity less and enjoy the fruits of his labor a little more now, it’s not the best thing for his competition.
On April 7 against Concord First Assembly, the visiting Eagles’ then-seven-game win streak was on the line in extra innings. Coincidentally, SouthLake Christian had started the victorious stretch against First Assembly in a 17-5 win on March 22.
In his first four plate appearances that day, Coleman struck out twice. Spin the clocks back a year, and maybe he wouldn’t be in the right frame of mind to handle the situation that followed: game tied at 5, two runners on, facing First Assembly pitcher Stephen Gilmore, a Gardner-Webb signee and all-conference standout.
No matter. Coleman smacked a double into right center field, drove in the winning runs, and the Eagles’ winning streak, which has now reached 12, stayed on course.
“It was a defining moment for him,” said SouthLake Christian coach Rich Landis.
For Coleman, every game is a new challenge. When asked what he thought about being a part of a team whose win streak was in double digits, he responded, “It is? I didn’t even know. I just look at them one game at a time.”
The objective – win each time SouthLake Christian takes the field – is the same. But how Coleman helps the Eagles go about that task is markedly different now.
Early in the season, Landis, who usually puts Coleman at center field, decided to switch things up a bit and move him to first base while Eagles pitcher – and frequent first baseman – Jared Fortune was on the mound. Coleman responded by running from center field into the infield, asking Fortune for his first baseman’s glove, and going to work.
“I love playing first,” Coleman said. Landis knew that, up until seventh grade, Coleman’s primary position was first base, but he was too quiet to ever ask for another shot at it. The switch from the outfield back to the infield wasn’t much of an issue for Coleman, who Landis said never slipped up once he moved.
But Coleman doesn’t just give the Eagles flexibility on defense. Coleman bats fifth but, according to Landis, “could just as easily bat anywhere else. I like having him in a place where once the other team’s pitcher goes through our first four, he can think, ‘I’ll have it a bit easier now.’ Not with Palmer coming up he won’t.”
Coleman – whose .484 batting average, eight home runs and 40 RBIs prove his coach’s sentiment to be true – just enjoys the opportunity to go out and set an example for his teammates, whether it’s reflected in the stat sheet or not.
“I try to help out everyone, whether they’re an infielder, outfielder – I just give people pointers whenever I can,” said Coleman, who wants to coach baseball later on in life. “I try not to get upset anymore, too. I dwelled on my mistakes, and it used to cause me to lose it. Now I just focus on how I can contribute.”
Landis described Coleman as a player with a quiet demeanor, someone who does whatever is asked of him and doesn’t complain.
“But he’s competitive, and he does not like to strike out or do anything to make himself think he looks bad out there,” Landis said.
According to Coleman’s father, Patrick, who got his son interested in the game at a young age and nurtured his talent throughout his eighth-to-10th-grade years at Concord Cannon School, the competitive streak has always been there. But harnessing it was a battle.
“I’ve had to tell him before, ‘Palmer, it’s a game, don’t be so serious about it. I know you want to win and get better, but remember it’s a game,’” the elder Coleman said. “It’s a maturity thing.”
Coleman took some coaching he received from Carolinas Baseball Center’s Jeff Schaefer to heart last summer, improving his hitting, fielding (he’s committed no errors in 20 games) and competitiveness. His father said the changes in all three categories were noticeable.
It isn’t just on the diamond that Coleman is serious, however. He also wrestles in the 189-pound weight class for the Eagles and has a GPA that hovers in the 4.8 range. As much time as he spends working on polishing his craft as a hitter and fielder, Landis said there’s no doubt that academics reign supreme in his star player’s mind.
“(Academics is) No. 1 to him, and you don’t often see that with players his caliber,” Landis said.
Coleman hasn’t fully decided which college he will attend after he graduates. He has several options, with a couple still waiting in the wings with baseball scholarships. But even if Coleman doesn’t sign with a school offering a baseball scholarship, he’ll be more than happy to focus on academics. After all, the parallels between success on the field and in the classroom are what helped draw Coleman to the game.
“I feel like there’s so much you can learn from baseball,” he said. “Teamwork. It’s individual when you’re batting but a team on defense. It’s a mental game, and I love it for that.”
Next year at this time, Coleman will be in college, and he might be playing baseball, but it isn’t a certainty. What’s certain among his father, his coach and himself is that as much of a leap as he’s taken as a player in a year, he’s taken a greater one as a person.
“You don’t see a lot of kids who are such good ball players pick school over baseball,” Landis said, “but that’s how Palmer operates.
“He sets a goal, then he goes after it.”