They came from big college programs with even bigger reputations, players from Division I programs across the country gathering to spend their summer playing in the Cal Ripken League.
And for the first time in his life, Chris Sweeney felt inferior on a baseball field.
“I think that’s how I felt a little my first year there,” Sweeney said, “Like, ‘I’ve got to prove I belong here.’”
All he proved is that old baseball adage is true. The game really is mind over matter.
It didn’t matter that Sweeney was coming off the best season of his life at King’s College, where he took off on a power surge that produced 13 home runs during his sophomore college season before he headed off to play in the Ripken League.
The struggles he endured there that summer and the tremendous disappointment that followed sharpened his hitting approach and strengthened his will, transforming him into an elite player at the Division III level.
Sweeney was selected as a Ripken League All-Star when he went back for a second season in Maryland last summer. He set King’s College records with a career .409 batting average, 39 home runs, 59 doubles, 139 RBI, 163 runs and a .777 slugging percentage.
And at the end of a spectacular senior season, Sweeney was named the Freedom Conference Player of the Year on Thursday.
“It’s up there,” Sweeney said, ranking the honor on his list of baseball achievements. “It’s something I wanted. I know how hard I worked for it.”
But before he could really succeed, he had to fail.
That one summer of struggle in the Ripken League, Sweeney said, taught him how to handle difficulty and accept challenges better than he had in the past.
“Absolutely,” said Sweeney, a 21-year-old outfielder who played for Crestwood High School and Mountain Top American Legion during his formative years. “The first year down there, that season was the most I’ve matured in baseball, ever. I went down there, I didn’t handle it the right way. In baseball, you’ve got to know how to deal with failure. That season taught me how. You’re going to fail a lot more than you succeed.
“If you’re not going to deal with the failure, you’re not going to make it.”
In his grand finale, Sweeney made it a season to remember.
He carried a batting average over .500 for most of the season, before finishing at .496 to rank first nationally among NCAA Division III players.
“It’s tough to keep your average above .500 for a whole year,” Sweeney said. “I’m surprised I took it as long as I did.”
His ,942 slugging percentage also led the nation this season, and the 22-game hitting streak Sweeney put together set a school record. He finished with 10 homers, 16 doubles, four triples and 41 RBI, and scored 44 runs in 32 games.
“The power’s been there since my sophomore year,” Sweeney said. “Last year, I kind of improved my average a little bit. This year, I put them all together. Different aspects of my game started developing every year.”
His development took off after Sweeney left Crestwood, where he was a pretty good outfielder - but hardly seemed destined for greatness.
He credits first-year King’s hitting instructor Jeff Distasio - a former Nanticoke and Georgia Tech star - with simplifying his approach at the plate.
“When I first saw Chris, I just knew he had a ton of potential,” Distasio said. “I also saw a kid who’s willing to work very, very hard to get better.
“Shortening things up,” Distasio said was the main thing they worked on. “Short stride, keeping his hands back. Once he got those down, his ability just took over. And he did a lot of great things.”
It turned into the season of greatness Sweeney had been striving for.
“Just wanting it,” Sweeney said was his secret. “I reached a certain point where I didn’t want to be just another player on the field. I worked very hard, put a lot of hours in in the cage.”
The son of Chris and Yvonne Sweeney of Mountain Top may not be finished yet.
He’s hoping to hear his name called in the June amateur Baseball Draft. And if he’s not chosen, Sweeney plans to play in the Carolina-Virginia College Baseball League - which allows recently-graduated college seniors - during this summer.
“This season was a big help - it gives me a little more help on paper,” said Sweeney, who will earn a degree in mass communications as part of the upcoming graduating class at King’s, but turned down a job offer to pursue his dream of playing professional baseball. “You only get one shot to have a chance at something like this.”
Distasio believes Sweeney has a pretty good shot at attracting someone’s interest at the next level.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to play with and against players who played at that level,” Distasio said. “He’s got all the tools. He’s still growing, still getting stronger. I think when he gets a wooden bat in his hands, he’s going to be even better. I definitely think he can play at the next level.
“If he doesn’t, it won’t be for lack of effort with him.”
As always, Sweeney’s effort to stay in the game will be all-out.
“If that doesn’t work out,” he said, “it’s been a good run.”