Mark Thornhill doesn't crush a lot, but he's a player.
Entering his sophomore season, the University of Georgia's most lethal offensive weapon has lost his anonymity. Each time the former Greenbrier shortstop steps onto the diamond, he'll have his opponents' undivided attention.
Southeastern Conference pitchers were unprepared for Thornhill's arrival in Athens a year ago. The question is can he repeat last year's breakthrough performance and do it with more pop?
"I came out of nowhere last year," Thornhill said. "It will be the same caliber of pitching this year. Hopefully, I'll have the same success I had last year."
Success came swiftly for the 6-foot, 210-pound third baseman. In 1998, Thornhill became just the third freshman in 102 years of Georgia baseball to lead the Bulldogs in batting. His .369 average is fifth on the all-time freshman list as well.
Thornhill left such an impression on coach Robert Sapp that the fourth-year coach moved the sophomore from the third spot to cleanup duty this season. While Sapp doesn't expect his young phenom to duplicate the UGA single-season record 23 home runs hit by last year's cleanup hitter, Andy Osbolt, he is shouldering Thornhill with the responsibility of driving in runs.
Only six of Thornhill's 58 hits in 1998 were for extra bases. He had five homers and one double while knocking in 34 runs. Thornhill, The Augusta Chronicle's Player of the Year in 1996, added upper-body strength while rehabbing from knee surgery in the fall.
The Bulldogs are coming off a 24-30 season, including a disappointing 8-21 SEC mark. With just four seniors on the roster, Sapp is expecting Thornhill to supply some punch this season. Thornhill said he picked up 35-40pounds on his bench press, but insists it won't affect his swing.
"(Sapp) doesn't want to put too much pressure on me," Thornhill said. "I'll still hit the ball where its pitched, and if I get more home runs, that's fine.
"Hitting is one of those things that you have to keep the same perspective day in and day out. Hitting off the caliber of pitching I did last year with the success I had opened some eyes.
"Yes, they'll know me and I know they've probably gotten better, but at the end of the season they knew who I was and I was still able to hit them."
Terry Holder's Columbia County baseball factory sent shortstop/reliever Tim Fries to Athens after back-to-back Class AAA championships. The Bulldogs want Fries to concentrate solely on pitching, which is fine for the 6-foot-2, 190-pound freshman.
He has fully recovered from a broken thumb and is anxious to prove he belongs.
"I'm ready for the season to start," Fries said. "I feel I'm just as good as anyone out there. One day they might hit me hard but the next day I hold my own against them."
During his two years at Greenbrier, the Wolfpack went 56-9. Fries is confident the Bulldogs can turn their program around.
Fries said Georgia can compete with anyone if everyone plays his part. He demonstrates that philosophy by accepting his bullpen duties.
"That was my goal coming in here, to fulfill the job coach gave me," Fries said. "I live for it. I know that's my role.
"I can't remember the last time I lost a game. I feel this team is capable of producing a great season."
Jimmy DeButts is a sports writer for The Augusta Chronicle . He can be reached at (706) 823-3221.