Prep Signing: Tyler Fuller
LANDIS — The football seasons from 1929-31 at UNC are known as the Johnny Branch Era because of a 150-pound lightning bolt from Salisbury.
John Dunn Branch performed such amazing feats passing, running, punting and drop-kicking for the Tar Heels that in 1969 he was named to the school’s all-time team. The two backs on that 11-man squad were “Choo Choo” Justice and Branch, who made his No. 63 as famous in his day as Choo Choo made No. 22 in the 1940s.
Branch, whose daring deeds in 1930 included an 85-yard punt return touchdown against Virginia Tech and a 96-yard return against Maryland a week later, died in 1978, but his spirit lives on at South Rowan.
South right fielder Tyler Fuller is several generations removed from his Hall of Fame relative, but there’s some Branch is his blood, in his build and in his wheels.
Fuller knows a lot about someone he refers to as “Uncle John,”
“I’ve heard a lot of stories,” Fuller said. “I know he set records for punt returns at UNC. I’ve got relatives who are Branches and maybe I got the speed from that side of the family. Growing up, I always was the fastest kid on my team.”
Fuller found out recently that before he went on to glory at UNC, Branch attended Belmont Abbey.
Fuller signed a scholarship with Belmont Abbey’s baseball program on Monday.
Fuller has been a two-way player for South’s football team and caught TD passes as a senior against Concord and West Rowan. He’s a standout swimmer in the winter, but baseball is his best sport.
South’s 19-4 season has been fueled by leadoff man Fuller, an ideal table-setter as a swift lefty.
“He’s been the catalyst for us,” South coach Thad Chrismon said. “Teams have to worry about him. Is he going to bunt? Is he just going to try to beat one into the ground? It’s nice to have speed and he has good bat control to go with it.”
Fuller leads the Raiders in just about everything — batting average (.364), runs (27), hits (32), RBIs (20) and doubles (6). He even leads the team in homers — with one. That was the inside-the-park grand slam he belted at CMC-NorthEast Stadium in the F&M Bank Classic where he made the all-tournament team.
Swinging lefty is huge, especially for a player whose biggest tool is speed.
“I remember as a kid if I even picked up a bat right-handed, I heard a ‘No!,’ ” Fuller said. “Being a lefty hitter helps. Freshman year against North Iredell I went 4-for-4 with four bunt hits.”
Fuller has been a three-year varsity starter at South and has enjoyed quite a career. He’s two hits shy of 100, he’s scored 83 runs, and he’s driven in 51. He’s smacked eight triples.
While he’s always been exciting offensively, Fuller’s defense has made strides as a senior. South’s right field is a Yellowstone-ish expanse, but Fuller plays it with a center fielder’s speed and a right fielder’s arm. He gunned down six adventurous baserunners in the first month this season.
“I haven’t thrown out as many lately, but that’s not necessarily bad,” Fuller said. “Fewer people are trying to run on me now. Coach (Brett) Stirewalt has worked with me a lot, and he’s helped me become a better defender and to throw more accurately. He’s taken the tail off my throws.”
Chrismon agrees Fuller has made himself a complete player in the past year.
“He’s worked at it,” Chrismon said. “Not just the throws, but he’s getting better reads on the ball and making more plays.”
Fuller had his sights set on Division I at one time, but he learned the hard way through tryouts that 6-footers usually get the benefit of the doubt and the D-I scholarships. Fuller is built like a small truck, but at 5-foot-7, he’s not going to pass the eye test for a lot of coaches.
“Height can be a disadvantage,” Fuller said. “I found out pretty early I wasn’t going to grow much. That’s why I’ve tried to stay in the weight room.”
Fuller often hears himself compared to Patrick Atwell, a short, fast, left-handed South outfielder from almost a decade ago. In the summer of 2004, Atwell stole 34 bases for South Rowan Legion — in 34 games. He could fly and once returned a playoff interception 100 yards against West Charlotte.
Atwell got a chance to play baseball at Belmont Abbey because of a guy named Chris Anderson. Anderson used to be Belmont Abbey’s pitching coach and recruiting coordinator, but he spent his summers moonlighting as the pitching coach for South Rowan American Legion.
Atwell did fine at Belmont Abbey, overcame a torn hamstring and was the starting right fielder for the 2009 Crusaders, who were ranked as high as fourth nationally and played in the Division II World Series.
Anderson is the head coach at Belmont Abbey now, and in Fuller, he no doubt sees the second coming of Atwell. Fuller is basically a darker-haired Atwell with a stronger arm.
Anderson made what had been a roller coaster of a recruiting process have a happy ending for Fuller.
“It was during basketball season and it was Superhero Night for South’s student section,” Fuller said. “I remember I was dressed as Captain America when I got a phone call from Coach Anderson. We talked about baseball and we talked about things outside baseball. Before he hung up, I knew where I wanted to go to school.”
Fuller visited Belmont Abbey, liked what he saw, and he’ll have a chance to be a good player for the Crusaders, who are trying to get back to where they were in their glory days.
“It felt like home when I went there, and I’ll accept any role they have for me on the baseball team,” Fuller said. “They’re interested in developing me as a person and a student. I liked that.”
Fuller, whose wardrobe has been mostly red and black since China Grove Middle School, won’t have to change colors for Belmont Abbey — and he’ll be following in the footsteps of “Uncle John.”