WHEN Jake Fields left the Valdosta State baseball program in 2013, he had no assurances as to where he would spend his final collegiate season.
The former Jefferson star had certainly done fine at VSU as a junior — hitting .326 — but Valdosta was a little too far from home.
“I didn’t know where I was going to go,” said Fields, who put up video-game like offensive numbers at Jefferson High School from 2007-2010. “I just decided I was going to get out of Valdosta.”
Turns out, he found the perfect landing spot.
After contacting coach Brad Stromdahl at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Fields signed on with the Grizzles for a remarkable year, hitting. 361 with three homers and 50 RBIs as Georgia Gwinnett went 53-13 and advanced to the NAIA World Series for the first time in the program’s brief two-year history. Fields said he was welcomed “with open arms” onto what was a very special team.
“The chemistry was there, you could tell,” he said. “It was something I’ll never forget. It was awesome.”
Fields finished his college career — which included two junior college seasons — with a .365 batting average but is unsure where he’ll go from here as far as baseball is concerned.
“I don’t really know to be honest with you,” he said. “I’d love to be able to play baseball. If I got that chance, it would be awesome. I’d definitely try to further it if I could. But right now I don’t know.”
Long before becoming a standout at Georgia Gwinnett, Fields wore out the fences at Horace J. Jackson Field. There is no better hitter in Jefferson baseball history than Fields, who holds 11 school records. The matter is not even up for debate, Dragon head coach Tommy Knight says.
“Heck no,” Knight said. “Not even close. He played every game of every season for four years and his career batting average was .561.”
That .561 average is both a Jefferson and state record while his 189 RBIs, 97 walks and 44 doubles — all school records — each rank second all-time in the state. He also socked a school-best 57 homers as a Dragon, which stands as the third-best career total all-time in Georgia.
Knight calls Fields the best hitter “by far” he’s ever seen in his 25-years of coaching in high school and college. Fields was so prolific that opposing fans in the stands would actually heckle Knight about whether Fields was too old to be a high school player. The coach laughed when recalling those stories.
“The other teams’ fans would start ragging me, being like ‘How old is this kid? Is this a college guy y’all brought down to play? He can’t be legal’ … It was crazy. They got mad because every time he came up, he did something good.”
Playing alongside players like Chris Beck, Fields was part of one Final Four team, one Elite Eight team and two Sweet 16 teams at Jefferson.
“It was an awesome baseball experience,” said Fields who hit .628 with 18 homers as a senior. “We went to the Final Four, Elite Eight and Sweet 16 and playing with Beck was awesome … just the team chemistry there as well. When I came in, like I said with Georgia Gwinnett, they just welcomed me with open arms.”
As talented a high school player as Fields was, Knight said his former star is just as good a person.
“He’s one of the best kids I’ve ever coached,” he said. “He’s always smiling. He’s always happy. He’s always upbeat … He’s just a joy to have on a team and to be around as a person.”
After high school, Fields spent two seasons playing junior college baseball at Middle Georgia and the one season at Valdosta State before arriving at Georgia Gwinnett this past spring as a senior transfer.
The transition went seamlessly.
“We all just hit it off when we walked in the door the first day,” said Fields, who already knew some of the guys on the team from playing against them in junior college.
The camaraderie among the team translated into major success on the field. The Grizzles reeled off 20 consecutive victories from Feb. 17 to March 18 as they rose into the NAIA top 10. Georgia Gwinnett finished the regular season ranked no. 6 at 44-9.
“It seemed to be rolling at first,” Fields said. “We kind of went through some struggles. But then (after that) our team was just unreal. Our chemistry was great. It was the best team I’ve ever been on. It was awesome.”
In April in the midst of the Grizzles’ incredible season, Fields reunited with his old high school coaches when Jefferson played Wesleyan at Georgia Gwinnett’s stadium in a neutral-site game. The Dragons won 8-6, and Fields enjoyed the blast from the past.
“It was awesome to see everybody — all my coaches — and I got to talk with them and I got to hang out in the dugout with them,” said Fields, who noted that he won a friendly wager with a teammate who was a Wesleyan alum. “It was fun. It was weird not being on the field though, but it was fun.”
After the regular season ended, Fields’ numbers in his one season at Georgia Gwinnett netted him a major accolade — Conference Newcomer of the Year for the Association of Independent Institutions. Fields was as surprised as anyone.
“I was speechless,” Fields said. “I didn’t know what to say. Coach Strom, he said he was nominating me for that. I was shocked … Lord bless, it was awesome.”
But the highlight of the year for Fields was Georgia Gwinnett’s postseason run.
Rebounding from an opening-day loss in the NAIA Championships, the Grizzlies beat Westmont, St. Francis and then Southeastern twice to qualify for the NAIA World Series in Lewiston, Idaho. Fields went 3-for-5 in the win over Westmont and 3-for-5 with three doubles in the victory over St. Francis.
Reaching the NAIA World Series reminded Fields of when he visited Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb. several years ago when his brother, Josh (now a pitcher for the Houston Astros), played in the College World Series with the University of Georgia.
“The atmosphere around that stadium was a lot like the atmosphere in Idaho,” Fields said. “Of course, it wasn’t nearly as big, but it was awesome. You knew why they hosted it every year.”
Fields called the overall experience “thrilling.” Georgia Gwinnett battled back from a 2-1, opening round loss to Oklahoma Wesleyan with a 6-4 victory over San Diego Christian. The Grizzlies’ and Fields’ dream season ended, though, with a 6-5 loss to Tabor (Kansas).
Even though his team was eliminated after three games in Lewiston, Fields came away from it with a lasting experience if he has indeed played his final baseball game.
“It was breathtaking,” he said. “It was something I dreamed of and it finally came true. It was awesome.”
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