The Sussex Central-Indian River rivalry runs deep in all sports. If neither team has won a game all year, a win over their rival will balance out the losing season. There could be a competitive crocheting match between the two schools and there would still likely be a arge crowd there to support their team.
As the school year drifts further and further away and summer gets into full swing, so does the American Legion baseball season — and that sometimes brings players outside of their high school team’s district.
Sussex Central’s C.J. Bell and Martez Hagans are two such players. And they decided to play ball with the largely Indian River-based Sussex East Post 28 baseball team this summer.
Assistant head coach Brendan Warner has been around Sussex County baseball for some time now and has had the pleasure of watching the two SC players compete against Indian River over the year. And as the old saying goes, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”
Or at least let them join you.
Since both players live in Georgetown and are outside of Post 28’s district, Warner and Sussex East’s coaching staff had to get approval from Post 8’s head coach, Pete Townsend.
“My problem was that I already had 12 players, most of which had been with me the last eight years,” Townsend explained. “And since adding Martez and C.J., they (Post 28) have picked up two more players from my district. But four more players would’ve given me 16, which is too many.
“I would’ve had too many, and Sussex East didn’t have enough,” he emphasized. “So it was much easier to let them play for Sussex East. Under different circumstances, I’d love to have them. They’re great athletes and great kids.”
“Pete was gracious enough to let them play for us,” Warner said of his Georgetown-area colleague. “And adding them gives us some much-needed speed. We had average to above-average team speed, before but the addition of Martez gives us speed in the outfield we just didn’t have.”
Hagans is penciled in as Post 28’s leadoff hitter and is a fixture in all three outfield positions. As a lefthander, he has the speed and ability to hit the ball on the ground and leg it out for a base hit or stretch it for more. The wheels that get him on base are the same ones that put him in position to make plays in the outfield.
Currently, Hagans has received a heap of attention from Division I and II schools for his services, since baseball is the only sport he plays, preparation is vital.
“They’ve been working with me on my bunting, so I’ve been working on that 24/7,” Hagans said. “There’s always room for improvement.”
Growing up, Hagans gravitated toward neighborhood southpaw Jon Ricketts, who now plays outfield for Delaware State University. Ricketts taught Hagans how to play the game and, to this day, they still work out together.
“He deserves all the credit,” Hagans said of Ricketts influence on his success in baseball. “He taught me everything about baseball. I used to try to pull every ball, and he told me to go with the location of the pitch.”
Bell’s road has been much different, but the path he’s taken has made him appreciate the opportunity to play the game he loves so much.
His first two years at Sussex Central were hindered by mononucleosis. His strength routinely waned and he couldn’t finish his freshman year. In fact, the illness cut his sophomore year short after only four days, making home-schooling absolutely necessary.
But Bell has played baseball since he was a little tike and nearly every season — except for the fall, when he plays soccer and kicks for the Golden Knights football team. So the hiatus “killed” him, he said.
Bell persevered, though, and made Sussex Central’s baseball team, where he earned second-team All-Conference honors as a junior.
“Being out of baseball definitely hurt me,” Bell said. “I could be playing better baseball if I hadn’t been sick. But when I got out there (for practice this past spring) I took my reps and played hard. I want to be the best and now all I have to do is get it done.”
“I want to win at all times,” Bell continued. “And I want to play with people who really want it.”
Warner noted that of all of Sussex Central’s players, Hagans, Bell and their most recent addition, outfielder Brian Scott, were the only kids on their wish list.
“Of all the kids on Sussex Central — they were the only ones that I wanted on the team,” Warner acknowledged. “Scott brings a lot of speed and is as good, if not better, than Martez. C.J. is a heady player who has good range, makes routine plays, puts the ball in play and is very versatile. He has the potential to be a phenomenal player and Martez is fast as lightning.”
On the flip side of the coin, Hagans and Bell are just has happy to play for Sussex East as that team is to have them.
“I’m real glad it worked out like it did,” Hagans said. “We’re better than I thought we’d be. We lost a lot of power, but we still have a few boys. The strength of our team is we can hit, pitch and play with a lot of heart.”
At this point in the year, players might be talking trash about next season. But instead, it’s common to hear “we” and “us” with Post 28.
The choice of words is even more unusual since the players compete at rival high schools. But they are teammates, and their familiarity with each other through competition has now fused into a bond that could help Sussex East win an American Legion baseball championship.
“They’re all great players,” Bell said. “And it took no time to get used to each other. It’s really easy to play with these guys.”