Photo: Pictured is Southside High graduate and Jacksonville State University assistant baseball coach Evan Bush during a game this past season.
By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
If the old saying “You are what your record says you are” is true, then a former Panther is making a name for himself in Gamecock country.
2002 Southside High graduate and Rainbow City native Evan Bush recently completed his third year as an assistant coach for the Jacksonville State University baseball program, a 36-month stretch during which the Gamecocks have compiled an overall record of 96-75 and a 55-35 mark in Ohio Valley Conference action.
The 2018 Gamecocks finished 32-25 and tied for third in the OVC standings with an 18-12 mark. JSU hosted the conference tournament last month at Choccolocco Park in Oxford, during which the Gamecocks went 2-2. JSU exited the tournament on May 25 with an 11-8 loss to Eastern Ken-tucky in 14 innings, a contest that went 14 innings and lasted over five hours.
“We kind of ran out of gas at the end and just couldn’t put another run across,” said Bush. “When you drop into the loser’s bracket, your chances get a little more slim, and we just couldn’t finish it off against Eastern Kentucky.”
As the program’s recruiting coordinator, Bush must forego any extended summer vacations.
“Basically, we were through on a Friday night and I was able to take a few days with my family [of wife Mary Elizabeth, four-year daughter Madelyn and two-year old son Bryce]. Now is the summer part of recruiting, which in some ways in the most important part of the process in getting the right people in here. We’ll be spending a lot of times in places like Birmingham, Nashville and Atlanta and seeing which guys the right fit for us.”
Due to ongoing renovations and damage caused by the March 19 tornado that hit parts of Jacksonville, the Gamecocks have not played at Rudy Abbott Field for the past two seasons. Bush pointed out that the lack of a home field for the past 24 months affected the program in a number of ways.
“Besides basically playing on the road for two years, we haven’t been able to hold our annual baseball camp that had been going on for a long time. As far as recruiting, it’s been a little different in that we’re not playing at the college when a recruit watches one of our games.
“It’s definitely been tough, and we’ve had to improvise on a lot of different things. Baseball is kind of a routine-based sport, and without that routine of a home field on campus, it’s been challenging for everyone involved.”
Bush stressed that the JSU baseball program as a whole is thankful to have a top-notch facility at its disposal within a 30-minute drive.
“We appreciate that we have a place to play a college game and not have to drive to the Birmingham area. It’s a good place to watch a game from a fan standpoint because they’re a lot of home runs, where it’s tough to hit one out at a place like the Hoover Met. [Choccolocco Park] is an offensive ballpark in an offensive league, so it’s been a lot of fun.”
Bush expects the refurbished Rudy Abbott Field to be ready in time for the 2018 fall season.
“Even with playing at Alabama and in the minor leagues, I don’t think that I’ve ever had a field this nice. This place is going to be pretty spectacular. Besides the new videoboard and scoreboard, the locker rooms and the rest of the indoor facilities are incredible. Everything about it is going to be super-nice. It’s already helping out with recruiting and it’s created a little bit more excitement around the program.”
Bush said that the recruiting process begins locally within a 30-mile radius of the JSU campus.
“That’s always the first place you look, just for the reason that you’re around those kids a little bit more and know them a little bit better and know what kind of person you’re getting. We always try Etowah and Calhoun counties first to find guys who can do it at this level.”
Bush said that it was a smooth transition from his playing to coaching career.
“I kind of slid into a GA position while I was finishing up my degree in communications at Alabama after minor league ball, and that allowed me to get my feet wet on that side of the sport. It kind of came down to if I could make a living out of [coaching].
“It’s like what [JSU head baseball] coach Jim [Case] says, that if you’re lucky enough to get in this profession, you don’t have to work a day. The gratification you get when you’re able to help somebody and see his hard work paying off for a kid is just an unbelievable feeling. That’s really what you live for as a coach, when you put forth all your efforts into helping a kid become the best that he can be.”
Southside High School won the Class 5A state championship in 2001 in Bush’s junior year. The Panthers swept top-ranked St. Paul’s Episcopal, 2-0 and 8-5, in a best-of-three series. Southside defeated Lee-Huntsville in the first round, Pleasant Grove in the second, Hartselle in the quarterfinals and Oak Mountain in the semifinals to earn a berth in the state championship series. Bush pitched and played shortstop, first base, second base and third base for the Panthers that season.
“When I strike up a conversation, there’s still people who’ll say that was about the best high school baseball team they’ve ever seen. It’s kind of a good feeling, especially when you look around now and see teams that have seven D-I commitments, and we just weren’t like that. It was a pretty close-knit group, and I still keep in contact with a lot of those guys, like Tyler Driskell and Eric West and Cole Helms.”
Bush said that then-SHS head baseball coach Scott Calhoun had a right personality to coach that particular team.
“He was really good at keeping everything steady and making sure we did the right thing. He did a great job of molding us into good players and good people. Most of us had been playing since we were freshmen or sophomores, so it was a group of guys that really had its priorities straight. We put in the work and got rewarded for it.”
The summer before his junior year, Bush was selected to the USA National Youth 16-under team, which won the Pan American Championship gold medal. Bish hit .550 in four games while teaming with future MLB players Xavier Paul, Delmon Young and James Loney.
“In my life, I don’t know if I had something that I can say is better than that experience,” Bush said. “Just being able to put on a USA jersey and represent my country and win the tournament against countries like Cuba and Puerto Rico was incredible.”
After a senior season in which he batted .395 along with 29 RBI, 22 runs scored, 10 home runs, Bush was offered a scholarship to the University of Alabama. As a four-year regular utility player for the Crimson Tide, he ranks second in career walks, fifth in games started and seventh in games played. As a senior in 2006, Bush helped lead Alabama to the Southeastern Conference championship and a second-straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
“I ended up playing most of my freshman and sophomore years at third base,” said Bush. “I also spent some time in leftfield and at first base. I went over to second base before my senior year, which is where I finished. It was a great experience to play against such good competition and to be on the best team in the league as a senior.”
Bush drew enough attention to be drafted in the 48th round by San Francisco Giants in 2006. He spent the 2006 season playing for Class A Salem-Keizer and Triple A Fresno.
“The question for everyone in that situation is if you’re going to be a major league baseball player or not, because you really can’t make a living playing in the minors. But it was a great experience to spend time in California, Oregon, Idaho and Washington.”
After his year as a graduate at Alabama, Bush three years as an assistant coach at Bevill State Community College in Fayette, where he was honored by Alabama Base-ball Coaches Association as the state’s top junior college assistant coach in 2010. He then spent six seasons at Alabama-Huntsville.
While at UAH, Bush was instrumental in building the Chargers in to one of the top teams in both the Gulf South Conference and NCAA Division II. The 2015 UAH team was ranked in the top 25 nationally for the duration of the season and led the conference with a .339 batting average, 409 runs, 108 doubles, 63 homers, 376 RBI, a .544 slugging percentage and a .433 on-base percentage. With Bush handling recruiting activities, UAH produced 30 All-Conference players, 14 All-Region players and four All-Americans.
“To help a program get back to the top where it had been before was special,” said Bush. “It was a great run with some incredible people. We had some players that were life-changers for me and my family. There were some phenomenal human beings in that program. You try to shape young men’s lives, and in the process, they end shaping yours.”
During the 2016 recruiting season Bush ran into Case, who suggested the two get together and have a chat. Case mentioned that he had an open position coming up at JSU, and Bush was drawn to the idea of moving close to home.
“Obviously, getting back to family was important, especially getting our kids back to where my mom and dad could see them was a blessing. It’s been awesome in that regard.”
Bush enjoys working under Case, who in 16 years at JSU has produced a 515-428 overall record and a 244-136 mark in conference play.
“The past three years have been great working for him, and we obviously think that things are going to take off even more. In this job, you always want to work for somebody who teaches you as you go along, and Coach Case has been a great mentor to me and Coach Murphree and the players.”
One of those players was Josh Bobo, a 2013 Etowah High graduate who was the Gamecocks’ starting third baseman in 2016 and 2017. Bobo finished his Gamecock career with 16 home runs and 137 hits.
“When you take a new job, you’re always looking for that player who will buy in, and Josh was one of those guys and we just hit it off. He earned every bit of what he achieved. He’s was very focused on both his baseball and his academics. He always did everything exactly how you wanted it done and was a real pleasure to coach.”
Although he is happy at JSU, Bush noted that the right opportunity came along at the right time, he would be open to becoming a head coach.
“I love the college level of ball, and that’s certainly the end goal. Being a coach is just like being a player – you have to work hard and keep trying to get better at it and learn something new every day. It’s been a lot of fun being at every level of baseball and seeing where this train takes me.”
This article was supplemented by jsugamecocksports.com.