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College baseball: Honeycutt hammering homers for Mars Hill

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

MARS HILL — Matt Honeycutt didn’t launch a single home run in high school, even with that short porch in left field at South Rowan High practically begging him to send one into the parking lot.

“I hit one in a scrimmage when I was a senior,” Honeycutt said with a laugh. “And I finally did hit a couple in American Legion ball, but I never got one in an official high school game.”

Honeycutt is making up for a slow start as a power hitter. The Mars Hill University catcher recently slugged six homers and produced 14 RBIs in a  single week. On April 5, he was named the Division II Player of the Week by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association.

“I was in the batting cage and I got a call from my mom (Leslie),” Honeycutt said. “I thought she was calling to ask about the weather, to see if our schedule would be changing, but she was calling to tell me I was the national player of the week. It was kind of hard to believe, but then I got the official notification on Twitter. It feels great, it really does. I have no clue if you get a plaque or a certificate or something. I haven’t seen anything yet.”

Honeycutt doesn’t need a certificate to tell him he’s been enjoying an incredible hitting binge. Since March 17, he’s batted .500 (28-for-56) with nine homers and 28 RBIs in 18 games. That’s jaw-dropping, eye-popping stuff.

“There was a game against Lenoir-Rhyne where I went 5-for-5 and my swing started to feel really comfortable,” Honeycutt said. “Now I just try not to change anything. I just want to keep it rolling.”

Not many Division-II level players get out of Rowan County because Catawba coach Jim Gantt has built a regional powerhouse with local players playing a prominent role. Gantt’s current squad is led by Salisbury senior Chance Bowden and East Rowan senior Luke Setzer, guys who played against Honeycutt in American Legion and high school.

Honeycutt flew well under the radar during his high school years. Timing is everything. Under normal circumstances, Honeycutt would have started at catcher for South Rowan for three seasons, but he was one class behind Eric Tyler, one of the best players South has had in this century. Tyler played mostly third base during his stellar career at East Carolina, but he was South’s varsity catcher for four years. The easy way out for Honeycutt would’ve been to transfer, but he stuck it out. South was his school. He was a Raider. He paid his dues.

When Tyler was a senior and Honeycutt was a junior, South head coach Thad Chrismon got both of them on the field every game as starters. In the league games, Tyler was behind the plate and Honeycutt played third base, but Honeycutt caught the non-conference games with Tyler taking a break by playing somewhere in the infield.

“Practicing with Eric, learning from Eric, I never looked at that as a bad thing,” Honeycutt said. “I learned so much about catching. It was a blessing.”

Finally, as a South senior in the spring of 2014, Honeycutt got his chance to shine as the first-string catcher and cleanup hitter for a 22-7 team that won the F&M Bank Classic and two 3A state playoff games. He batted .329 with 13 RBIs, although 18 of his 22 hits were singles. The power was still a few years away.

Honeycutt threw accurately and quickly from behind the plate — he cut down two West Rowan base-stealers in the same game — and his arm was the first thing college coaches noticed. He wanted to go to college somewhere in the mountains. He talked to Western Carolina about walking on, and he took a long look at Brevard. Then he attended a Mars Hill tryout camp where coach Aaron Rembert liked him enough to make a successful, follow-up recruiting visit to Honeycutt’s home in China Grove.

“We thought Matt could be a good player for us,” Rembert said. “All he needed was more size and strength.”

Honeycutt was a late signing in April. Chrismon predicted that he might become a “big-time guy” with the aid of a college weight program. Chrismon has been proven right.

Honeycutt was 6 feet tall and he’d played tight end on South’s football team, but when he arrived at Mars Hill he weighed 145 pounds. Rembert and the Honeycutts agreed on a decision in the early spring of 2015 that changed Matt’s career.

“It was key that he and his family agreed that he’d redshirt that first season,” Rembert said. “I remember asking him, ‘Matt, when do you think you’ll play more — right now or as a fifth-year senior?’ The important thing is to understand that being a redshirt isn’t a knock on the player. It’s a chance to learn, to get bigger and to get stronger. Matt embraced that redshirt year in the right way. He didn’t take a year off. He practiced and prepared himself every day.”

Honeycutt convinced himself that his time would come. He hit the books and the weights. The pounds and muscle started to come.

“That redshirt year, I learned how things worked in college and I tried to get better,” Honeycutt said.

As a redshirt freshman in 2016, Honeycutt made his first contributions to the Lions. He started 18 games, although he batted a modest .232 with zero homers and four RBIs.

As a sophomore last spring, Honeycutt became a staple in the Mars Hill lineup. He hit five homers, drove in 34 runs and batted .317.

Back in February, heading into his junior season, he was voted to the preseason All-South Atlantic Conference team by the league’s coaches.

“He’s a guy who’s just continued to work and he’s made himself into an all-conference level player,” Rembert said. “He’s having a fantastic season with the bat and he’s also giving us a lot of leadership by example. That comes with the position he plays.”

This season has seen a massive offensive breakout for Honeycutt. Coaches tweaked his swing last season to incorporate a leg kick. That kick has helped his timing and helped awaken his dormant power. He also checks in at 185 pounds now, 40 solid pounds larger than he was as a thin freshman.

His junior season was going well even before he got scorching hot in mid-March. Catawba outscored the Lions in three games in Mars Hill,  but Honeycutt hit three out of the park in that series.

He’s second in the SAC in slugging percentage (behind Bowden). He’s near the top with 13 homers, and he’s in the top 10  in batting average (.381), on-base percentage (.476), RBIs (40) and hits (53). Those are awesome offensive stats for a catcher. That’s the most grueling and demanding defensive position, as catchers accept a frequent bruising from blocking pitches in the dirt and from foul tips. Two-thirds of the SAC games are doubleheaders, so even if Honeycutt is serving as the DH in the second game, he’s pretty exhausted.

“I still feel like I hit better when I’m catching.” Honeycutt said. “You’re more in the flow of the game when you’re catching. If I could, I’d catch every game.”

Mars Hill’s program  has climbed right along with Honeycutt. The Lions were one of the league’s weaker teams when he was recruited,  but they broke through for 30 wins in 2016 and finished fourth in the SAC last season.

The Lions started this season 7-20, but they’ve now won 10 in a row to get to 17-20. That streak includes SAC sweeps of Coker and Carson-Newman. Honeycutt was 3-for-5 with a homer and four RBIs in the series finale against Carson-Newman on Sunday.

“The weather wasn’t exactly ideal, rainy and cold, and we didn’t get off to a good start,” Honeycutt said. “But things have started to come together for us.”

A guy hitting .500 out of the 3-hole tends to help things come together.

As far as the future, Honeycutt, who dates UNC Pembroke basketball player Avery Locklear, sees himself becoming a teacher and baseball coach. South Rowan has been turning out quite a few of those. Tyler is an assistant coach at ECU now, while Honeycutt’s former teammates Dylan Goodman (Pfeiffer) and Parker Hubbard (Brevard) are jayvee coaches. Goodman pilots the South Rowan jayvees, while Hubbard is at Cox Mill.

College baseball seasons start in early February, so the Lions are already entering the homestretch. The great thing for Honeycutt is he’ll still have another year of eligibility after this one. That redshirt year should pay huge dividends for the Lions in 2019.

Setzer was SAC Player of the Year last season, and Bowden probably is the frontrunner this time. Next year it may be Honeycutt, and there was no way to see that coming two years ago.

Rembert said that while there are a lot of terrific ballplayers in Rowan County, it’s not easy to recruit them in Catawba’s backyard.

He does have a second Rowan County player on his team now. That’s West graduate Brandon Walton, who is redshirting as a freshman following arm surgery.

“I believe Brandon will hit and pitch for us,” Rembert said. “Maybe he’ll be another Matt Honeycutt.”

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