Donnie Stone thought he was a pretty good baseball player his senior year at Oakcrest in 2017. He figured he was big, strong and fast enough to get a Division I scholarship off, but none came. A few Division II and DIII schools had shown some interest, but Stone said when the types of offers he wanted didn’t come in he had to do some soul searching.

Was he really as good as he thought he’d been for all those years growing up? More importantly, what was he willing to do to make his dream of playing Division I baseball a reality? Was he willing to take a different route, one that he hadn’t really considered before?

Stone decided his best option was to go to junior college and he chose to attend Cumberland County College, one of the premier Division III juco programs in the nation. And, after two highly successful seasons with the Dukes, Stone will be fulfilling his dream next year as a scholarship player at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

“It wasn’t on my radar at all. I had never even thought of going to a junior college. It didn’t happen until real late in the recruiting process. It wasn’t until after my senior season that I decided to come to Cumberland,” said Stone, who is hitting .287 with five home runs and 45 RBIs this year for the Dukes, who are making their third trip in the past eight years to the National Junior College Athletic Association Division III World Series. “I had some interest from some DIII schools and one or two division II schools, but I thought I could do better, so I kind of bet on myself and decided to go the juco route. Thankfully, it paid off. I just wanted to go to the best, and Cumberland had a great reputation of being ranked in the top five every year (nationally), if not No. 1, so I figured if I was going to go play for a junior college I might as well go to one that can compete for a national championship every year. That’s kind of what it came down to for me.

“Something that kind of caught my eye right away was last year, after some of the first practices, there were always guys staying around after to do more stuff,” Stone added. “It’s a great atmosphere to be around, and it makes it easy to go out and do extra work because you have guys who have that same attitude.”

Going to a junior college to start a college baseball career is an option more players are taking a hard look at these days, for a variety of reasons. The competition is as good as it has ever been, especially in the northeast, it’s drastically less expensive, and — perhaps most importantly — a high school player can come in and potentially get two years of playing time instead of having to sit the bench behind a junior or senior at a four-year college.

“Donnie Stone is a great example, he’s a young man who had some interest from some Division III and a couple of Division II colleges, but he really wanted to give it a shot and see what kind of options he had out there. I couldn’t be happier for him. He’s going to be paying a very minimal amount of tuition at Marist, and you just don’t get that kind of offer out of high school, typically,” said Cumberland coach Keith Gorman, who has been at the helm for the past eight years. “The thing that Donnie has going for him — like all junior college players — is that he is a proven college player. Marist knows they are getting a player they can stick into the lineup right away and get production out of. You don’t always know that from a 17-year-old you’re getting out of high school. That’s a risky investment for some of these colleges. Junior college baseball is a great option for everyone, not just someone who has struggle academically, but also high academic students as well.”

“The fact that it’s reasonably priced makes it an obvious choice, when you really think about it, but a lot of players, especially younger players, don’t really think about those things and think everything will just work itself out. In reality, you’re the one who ends up with the debt when you get out of college. So, it’s something more players should think about before they decide which college they are going to go to,” Stone said. “It’s been huge, instead of sitting the bench, this has provided me the opportunity to play. At the junior college level, you play close to 60 games plus a full fall schedule, so that was a big thing that Marist liked. I already have two college seasons under my belt and that will make the transition a lot easier, instead of just coming out of high school.”

Cumberland County College currently has four players at the professional level, including players in the Minnesota Twins, New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals systems, and has more than 30 alumni currently playing at four-year colleges. Gorman has also tapped the Cape-Atlantic League for its talent more and more the past couple of years.

“We have a very good reputation in South Jersey and the evidence is there, our guys are doing well and moving on. We have a very good network in the Philadelphia area. We’re very proud of the Cape-Atlantic League guys. I think this is the most guys we’ve had from the CAL. There’s a lot of talent in the CAL, and sometimes it’s hidden. Dylan Scaranda is a great example of that. I don’t know that anybody was recruiting him. His former coach, Brian Wastell, gave me a call, and we came out and loved him. He’s a lot more athletic than people give him credit for, and he’s committed to Campbell University, a great Division I program in the Big South Conference. He’ll do a tremendous job down there. He’s got power and is a very good defensive third baseman. We’re excited for him,” Gorman said. “Another guy is JoJo Rodriguez out of Vineland High School, he wasn’t really recruited by anybody, and he’s going to have to pay less than $5,000 a year to go to St. John’s, which is obviously a top-50 program in the country. JoJo will do a fantastic job for St. John’s next year. There’s a lot of great players in South Jersey that we’re fortunate enough to coach, and see go on to bigger and better things.”

Scaranda has become sort of the poster boy for what junior college baseball can do for a player. During his years at Absegami, he was a good player but not the kind of guy who would wow college recruiters. He was batting sixth in the Braves’ lineup and not exactly lighting the world on fire offensively. Two years of juco baseball, however, have turned him into a threat at the plate. This season, he’s leading the Dukes with a .425 average and 63 RBIs, and is third on the team in home runs with six. He’s also tied for the team lead with 76 hits, and has smacked 21 doubles.

“Out of high school, I didn’t have any offers, wasn’t talking to any schools. My summer coach, Ed Hayes, told me about Cumberland, and toward the end of my senior season I figured I’d give it a shot. So I called coach Gorman, he picked up the phone and invited me for a visit, and I really liked it there. I had to call him a couple times to get him to answer, finally got in touch with him and he sent one of his assistant coaches out to watch a couple of my high school games. I was batting sixth and wasn’t anything special, but they gave me the chance I needed, and it’s worked out,” said Scaranda, who has parlayed his success at Cumberland into a scholarship offer to play at Campbell University in North Carolina. “It was exciting. My family was really excited for me. Sometimes you think you’re good, or much better than you are, and it was humbling coming out of high school without any offers. I got told about Cumberland, and they gave me a great opportunity. It’s very focused in practice, in BP you have set rounds, move the runner over — it really helps you develop as a hitter. A big thing we work on is letting the ball get deep. A lot of young hitters like to pull everything, so a big thing for me was to let the ball get deeper. A lot of pitchers like to pound the outside of the zone, and being able to hit the outside pitch is very important as a hitter. I hit .360 with 10 home runs last year, and that really lit a spark in me because it made me come back this year even more focused. I’ve put up some pretty good numbers this year.”

This year’s roster is filled with guys from the Cape-Atlantic League, such as Tyler Knox of Holy Spirit, Nick Lonetto and Mike Miles of St. Augustine Prep, Nick and Ryan Hillesheim of Absegami, Ja’Ques Colon of Vineland, Nick Milhan of EHT and Ryan McIsaac of Millville, among others.

Stone says he has come a long way since his high school days at Oakcrest, and credits the coaching staff and atmosphere at Cumberland for helping him become the Division I player he always thought he could be.
“It’s taken a lot. It happened two years later than I thought it would, but this is something I’ve been working toward since I was 6 years old. Playing Division I baseball was always the goal, but coming out of high school without any Division I offers, it was time for me to look myself in the mirror and ask myself why I’m doing this,” Stone said. “Cumberland really gave me the opportunity to play for two years and find myself as a hitter and become a better defensive player. It made the recruiting process for a Division I school to be interested in me a lot easier. At the junior college level, you really do eat, sleep and breathe baseball, so if it’s something (a high school player) is passionate about, junior college is the place to be.”

Added Scaranda, “You get a lot of at-bats in, and it’s a lot cheaper. My financial aid covered all the tuition costs, so I came here with nothing to pay, then I get an offer to go play Division I baseball, which is the ultimate goal. I’m coming out of here with no debt and going to play Division I ball, so you can’t really beat that. I’m getting a 50 percent academic scholarship (to Campbell) and financial aid covers a lot of the rest, so I’ll only be paying a little bit each year.”

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays