Cell phone service ended long before the vans carrying the UAB baseball team turned down the narrow dirt driveway leading to Baseball Country.

They arrived at night, which didn’t allow them to see what was coming. In a way, that was appropriate because UAB baseball coach Casey Dunn, who was well aware of what would happen over the next few days earlier this month, kept his team in the dark on what to expect.

“These guys are smart,” Dunn said. “They reached out to some of the guys at Samford, who had been. The last time we took a group at Samford, the guy that led some of the team building crushed them. He really crushed them, man. So, physically, it was really taxing the last time I took a group. Our guys were scared to death. I don’t know if they’ll admit it, but they were scared.”

UAB pitcher Carson Knight described the initial experience.

“We had no service about 30 minutes away, so we knew we were out there in the boondocks when we were pulling up,” Knight said. “There was one little light pole outside. It was cold, and we knew it was going to be a long weekend, but it was fun.”

Baseball Country is a 50-acre complex in Jena, Alabama, an unincorporated community in Greene County, which is about 25 minutes from the Tuscaloosa city limits but seems much farther away. Baseball Country is a ministry that was founded in 1985 and changed ownership in 2016, with former major league baseball pitcher Sam Marsonek taking over. The facility includes a major league size field, a smaller field, a wiffle ball field, a dining hall and an indoor training facility. The programs they run are multi-layered, running from team and individual camps to hosting mission teams to running developmental youth teams to coordinating international mission trips for teams.  

“It was really cool when we got up, just to see everything,” said UAB catcher Henry Hunter. “We went into the indoor facility to see the cages, turf and weight room. We were a little bit jealous, in a way. We were like this is awesome, having an indoor place like this. They do a really good job of keeping it nice and making it a place where kids want to come and want to be.”

Dunn was not surprised. He is not only very familiar with Baseball Country but is a long-time friend of Marsonek.

“I met Sam a long time ago,” Dunn said. “He was actually a minor league roommate with one of my best friends from high school and college. I’ve been through some mission trips in the Dominican with him before. He has really been big in my family’s life. He is a mentor for my son. My son has worked down there for the last three years. Personally, I’m connected now because my son has done a lot down there and been a part of what he’s doing. I’m a little biased, but I just think it’s a special place. Sam has a huge heart for the people and the community down there with what he’s trying to do.”

While Baseball Country is an excellent place to learn baseball skills, that wasn’t why Dunn chose to take his team to Jena. Dunn is starting his second season as the UAB baseball coach. His roster is still a mixture of his recruits and players brought in by former coaches Brian Shoop and Perry Roth. This program, Dunn felt, was a chance to get everyone on the same page.

“We can complain a lot of things we don’t have, but the one thing we have here is we have good kids,” Dunn said. “Coach Shoop and Perry and those guys, obviously, character mattered to them. The guys we inherited are good people. We’ve tried to bring in good people. That’s important for us, as well. We’ve got good guys who enjoyed it. When you get around someone, you kind of break down their walls a little bit, you realize you have a lot of similarities with them. They realized we got a good group of guys, and we can be one unit.”

While baseball is an option, it had nothing to do with the three-day program for the Blazers. It was a series of military team-building exercises mixed with community service opportunities and mental challenges. The players played basketball with kids in Greene County, and the conversations with each other weren’t interrupted by cell phones or television. Yes, it was physical at times, but it was much more than that.

“It was definitely hard, but the whole thought of being scared of what might happen to us, not knowing what to expect, was tougher than the actual physical activities we had to do,” Hunter said. “It was a mental challenge to get the right strategy together, to do what we had to do. We had to be able to work together in what we had to do. I think we get challenged physically in the weight room and (on the field). I think we’re a strong group in that aspect. But, the things we needed to work on got exposed – the mental side in being able to work together. It honestly worked out better because I think we’re a pretty tough team, but when it comes down to it, when you get challenged a little extra, you really find out what everybody is all about.”

Growing in their faith was also a focus.

“I’d say it was a great opportunity for us to grow spiritually, too. We heard two really good testimonies from Sam and also Casey, a guy from the church. They brought him in from California,” Knight said. “Going over something bigger than baseball makes baseball a little more peripheral. It takes pressure off us when we’re on the field. It was a great opportunity for us to grow closer over something other than baseball.”

Both Hunter and Knight said they walked away a closer team. What would they say to the next group going in for the first time?

“I would first tell them that it’s the most moving two or three days that you’ll ever have,” Hunter said. “What we’re able to accomplish with our minds was truly amazing. Just have an open mind when you go in. Don’t take anything for granted, don’t hate the weekend. Keep an open mind, be accepting and know that your brothers are going through it with you. I think the more open you are to it and the more you are to just listen and learn. You get out of it what you put in.”

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email steve.irvine@1819news.com.

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