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Phil Campbell slugger set to sign with UNA on Wednesday

Phil Campbell senior Peyton Thomas, last year’s Class 2A Hitter of the Year, will sign with the University of North Alabama on Wednesday morning in a ceremony at the PCHS library. The Free Press caught up with Thomas, who batted .433 for the Bobcats last season and has 22 career home runs at the varsity level, for a Q & A session on Sunday evening.

Seven innings in a high school baseball game, seven questions for the man of the moment. Batter up.

FFP: What’s the most memorable home run you’ve hit?

PT: Oh, man. There’s been a couple that stand out. One of my favorites was probably this past year at Haleyville. It was my second home run of the day. We played a doubleheader, and I hit one in the first game, too. But in the second game, I hit one off one of their pretty good pitchers. He threw me a chest-high fastball, and I swung and missed. I swung out of my shoes. The next time, he threw it again, and I hit it. It went over that big net they have in left field and landed all the way in left field on the softball field. The pitcher was throwing 85 to 88, and I connected with it.

“Another one that sticks out was the Red Bay one [off ace lefty Chandler Allen in the first inning of a game at Red Bay on March 23 of this year]. That’s such a big rivalry, and I hit it in the first inning. I tried to get things going, but we ended up losing that game so I don’t know about that one.”

FFP: You already answered our next question, but here goes: What’s the farthest home run you’ve hit?

PT: “Yeah, it’s the one at Haleyville. Even my coach [Jonathan Raper] was like, ‘That’s the furthest I’ve ever seen you hit one.’ I usually don’t know when I hit one, but on that one I started jogging as soon as I hit it. I knew that one was gone.”

FFP: Who’s the toughest pitcher you’ve ever faced?

PT: From around here? Probably the guy I’ve had the least success against is a little lefty at Mars Hill named Seth Swinea. I don’t know what it is about that guy, but I’ve faced him from the ninth grade all the way to the playoffs last year [Mars Hill swept Phil Campbell in a second-round series], and I’m maybe 1-for-9 or 1-for-10 off him. He doesn’t throw hard. He’s just a regular fastball-curveball-changeup guy. I don’t know.” [Thomas may get another opportunity to figure out Swinea, who will be a senior for the Panthers this spring.]

“As far as the hardest thrower I’ve ever faced, I’d have to go to travel ball on that one. I faced a guy this summer named Slade Cecconi [a 6’4 right-hander from Oviedo, Florida]. He pitched against us [Thomas played this summer for Vipers Baseball out of Huntsville] in a tournament in Atlanta. He was 94 consistently, and he topped out at 96. I was the one he hit that [number] against. He was throwing some gas. It wasn’t taking that long to get to the mitt.

“I struck out the first time, and I grounded out to second the second time. But I keep telling my friends, I was six inches away from having a double off him. I hit one down the right-field line, and it was six inches from being fair. I was spread out and choked up. I had never seen anything like that.”

FFP: When was the moment you realized that playing college baseball was possible for you?

PT: “I guess it was when I started playing against competition other than from around this area, and I could compete. That gave me confidence that I could do it, you know. Nothing against anybody from around here, you know, but any time you have a wider range of players, you’re ultimately gonna get better competition.

“When I was fourteen, I played my first tournament in Atlanta [for Slam Baseball out of Birmingham]. It was an eye-opener, honestly. I didn’t do very well, and it really made me work harder. By the time I went back the following summer or spring, I did a lot better. I realized I could compete against them, and those were guys wanting to go play in college, too.”

FFP: What’s the best thing about playing baseball at Phil Campbell?

PT: “Everybody shows up and we expect to win, regardless of who we’re playing or where we’re at. We’re gonna beat you, no questions asked. Every day at practice or at a game, we show up—Coach Raper makes us show up—and play to the best of our ability. If we don’t, it ain’t pretty.”

FFP: Coach Raper is known to have a lot of sayings. What’s your favorite?

PT: [Laughing] “If you could only hear some of the things he says to us…Oh man, my favorite is when he’ll get riled up and he gets to where he says, ‘Old McDonald’ all the time. ‘Old McDonald had a farm.’ It could be good or bad. Usually, it’s a mix. If it’s a good thing, he says it in a happy voice. If it’s a bad thing, he says it in one of those disappointed voices, kind of like he’s surprised we did what we did.

“He says, ‘Good golly, Miss Molly’ a lot, too. He says some crazy stuff. We all have kind of a joke on the team that he has his own language. We call it Raper-nese. When he gets excited and gets going, sometimes you can’t understand what he’s saying.”

FFP: What’s the number one reason you chose UNA?

PT: “I just felt at home there. I don’t really know what it was. I went into the visit knowing they were gonna be in a transition period going from Division II to Division I [a process that UNA will begin in the fall of 2018]. But they can still compete for conference championships. Then another thing was just the opportunity to play Division I baseball. Everybody wants to do that, at the highest of levels.

“I believe I can go there and play. You never know. No one knows what’s gonna happen in the future. I may go there and sit out two years and then play my junior and senior years. But I had confidence that I could go there and play four years at a Division I program.”

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