#TGW: You Never Know
Senior outfielder Coleman Poje is enjoying finishing his college career in a way he might not have expected
There's good reason why you never say never.
Coleman Poje said it once, while attending Westminster High School. He swore he’d NEVER follow in the footsteps of either his older brother, Brandon, who attended Air Force Academy, or his parents, Chris and Stephanie, both of whom graduated from Georgia Tech (Chris is Class of 1988, Stephanie is Class of 1990 -- Coleman’s grandfather, Ben Turnipseed also is a Georgia Tech graduate).
He’ll never say it again.
Poje changed his mind when Air Force expressed interest in him playing baseball for them (he’d have to walk on), then going to Tech after trying the Air Force lifestyle and wanting to go in another direction.
“The two places I said I’d never go were the two places I ended up going,” he said, with a laugh. “But it’s worked out well. I’m glad it happened.”
Poje will play his final regular season collegiate game at Russ Chandler Stadium on Saturday afternoon, Senior Day, when he and fellow seniors, outfielders Keenan Innis and Ryan Peurifoy and pitchers Jonathan King and Zac Ryan take a final bow prior to the series- and regular-season finale against No. 8 Virginia.
Poje might have said never had he not had the kind of season he’s had in 2017, especially after batting .214 with two homers and 10 RBIs in 24 games (four starts) in 2016, his first season on The Flats. Those totals were only four points lower and one RBI higher than his total in 31 games at the Air Force Academy.
But, determined to have a memorable senior year, he worked, starting over the summer, and he became one of the Jackets’ top sluggers, mostly hitting fifth, and one of the most improved players in 2017. Heading into the final weekend, Poje, was slugging .514, second on the team, and his 10 homers (the Jackets are 7-3 in games he’s homered) tied for second with Kel Johnson -- only 2017 Johnny Bench Award Semifinalist Joey Bart was better in both (13, .575). He’s tied for fourth with 13 multi-hit games and seven multi-RBI games.
In ACC play, no one has topped Poje’s power, as his five jacks and .500 slugging percentage led the team. He also was second in total bases (53, behind only Trevor Craport) and was tied for third in hits (29, with lead-off man Wade Bailey).
Working through things has been the M.O. for Poje. It’s what has helped the 6-2, 209-pound Atlanta native earn a place in the starting lineup in 2017. Saturday’s game will mark his 53rd game played this season, primarily in right field, his 49th start and 42nd straight start.
“I think it’s a testament to his work ethic and how hard he works,” said head coach Danny Hall. “Last year he played a little but never really established himself as a starter. He had a really good summer last summer in the Sunbelt League, came in in the fall with a tremendous work ethic, and a lot more confidence that he could play here. He had a great fall and ended up just winning a starting job and has had a great senior year. The one thing that he brings every day is a really good work ethic.”
Poje agrees with Hall that last summer was a turning point. While he hit only .232, in 21 games with the Brookhaven Bucks, he tied for the team lead in homers (six) and was second in RBIs (15), while showing good plate discipline -- walking 13 times vs. 16 strikeouts.
“I think it was huge,” he said. “Obviously, I hadn’t played a full season in a while, due to various injuries, when I showed up here I had to redshirt and then didn’t get much playing time last year. So it was good to get reps, good to see live pitching, also just good to go back to the roots of the game. In the Sun Belt League you show up and you play baseball because you love it. So it was good to remind myself what that feels like. Thankfully I’ve been able to carry that same mindset to this season.”
Coleman’s mindset of working hard and not being outworked is as old as he is.
“I remember times in elementary and middle school, when a kid would show up to school and be faster than me or be better than me at some sport,” he recalled. “I would immediately try to get as good at that as I could because I wanted to be the best that I could possibly be in all those aspects. So I think it’s just kind of been something I was bred to do, just to compete and be the best that I can be. Whether or not that means best player on the team or best player on the field, I like to leave the field every day knowing that I gave what I had so that I could be the best I could be that day.”
The same could be said of him in the weight room, a pursuit that also began early, but more out of necessity.
“Growing up I was always one of the skinnier guys. I would try and run around with my older brother and his friends so I’d get picked on a lot,” he recalled. “I had to either get tough or get picked on so I decided as soon as my parents let me get in the weight room, about eighth grade, I just started hitting it as hard as I could. I didn’t really know what I was doing at first but fell in love with it. I fell in love with seeing changes and seeing how it affected my sports and other aspects. Now it’s almost an addiction, I guess, I just kind of have to do it.”
It’s an addiction Coach Hall was warned about during Coleman’s visit to campus.
“When he first came on campus, his dad goes, ‘He may need to spend more time in the batting cage and less time in the weight room,’” Hall recalled with a laugh. “He spends a lot of time certainly working hard in the weight room but he also spends a lot of time in the batting cage trying to become a great hitter. Our players see that. They look up to him because of his work habits, his habits off the field and his habits on the field.”
“I’m not surprised that he said that,” Coleman said, breaking into a smile. “I think I’ve done a good job of evening it out. My swing was something to be worked on when I first showed up. The coaches have put in a lot of good work with me, helped me figure out how to use the muscles that I’ve been building for the last eight years and turn them into something that can hit the ball a long way.”
Poje’s similarly hit it out of the park on the academic side. He graduated on May 6 with a degree in industrial engineering and is looking to make it 3-for-3 in earning ACC Academic Honor Roll honors. That followed going 2-for-2 in being named Academic All-Conference in his two years at Air Force. He’s already earned 2016-17 CoSIDA Academic All-District Honors.
“I kind of just take the same attitude to that as I take to the weight room or take to baseball,” he said. “Just put in the best effort I can and the results will take care of themselves.”
That commitment to academics and the results don’t surprise Hall.
“He’s a bright kid and education is important to him,” he said. “I do think there’s a direct transfer between what you do in school, what you do off the field and the way you perform on the field. I think Coleman is one of those guys that gets it and values education and values a work ethic.”
Where Poje goes next is up in the air. Of course, he’s still getting over graduating.
“It’s kind of still surreal. It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” he said. “It kind of just feels like I’m going into another summer of college. I’m sure when fall rolls around and everyone else is going back to class and I’m not that’s when it’s really going to sink in.”
He felt the same about his final game at The Rusty C, which he’ll play in front of his mom, dad, Brandon, Brandon’s wife and their son.
“I don’t know how emotional I’ll get. I’m definitely excited but I’m not much of an emotional guy,” he said. “I’m definitely going to soak in the moment and realize this is the last time I’ll get to play at this field. Hopefully it will be a good time. Hopefully we’ll go out with a bang then make a run in the ACCs and see what happens.”