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GWINNETT GRADS: Norcross' Rakes rebounds in big way for Tusculum

Special photo Taylor Rakes, a Norcross graduate, pitches for Tusculum College. He missed the 2011 season after having reconstructive elbow or Tommy John surgery.

Special photo Taylor Rakes, a Norcross graduate, pitches for Tusculum College. He missed the 2011 season after having reconstructive elbow or Tommy John surgery.

As far as no-decisions go, it was quite memorable.

Taylor Rakes had just gone 5 innings Feb. 3 against St. Andrews and left the game when he hit his pre-planned, 60-pitch limit. His numbers weren't earth-shattering -- four strikeouts, two earned runs -- but he walked off the mound satisfied and to a standing ovation.

The junior right-hander was greeted immediately by first-year Tusculum College assistant Andy Collins, his former coach at Norcross.

"It was pretty exciting walking off the field," Rakes said. "My teammates were congratulating me and Coach Collins gave me a big hug. Coach Collins, I'll never forget what he said, 'It was worth it, wasn't it?' And I said, 'Oh, yeah.'"

Rakes wasn't just making his first start of the season that cool night. He was pitching in his first real college game since 2010 after missing the 2011 season with Tommy John surgery on his elbow.

His successful return made the 18 months of rehab and recovery worth it.

"I was a little nervous before the game," Rakes said. "I was more nervous that game than I was my first college start because I didn't know how it was going to go."

The solid debut was only the beginning of Rakes' comeback story.

He got stronger as the season progressed and helped Tusculum (44-7), ranked fourth nationally in NCAA Division II, win the South Atlantic Conference regular-season and tournament championships. The latter victory last weekend clinched an automatic berth in the Division II tourney.

Rakes' season has been just as remarkable. The 6-foot-1, 160-pounder is 9-1 with a 3.15 ERA and three complete games. He has 46 strikeouts and just 14 walks in 68 innings.

"I knew I could do it," Rakes said of his comeback. "But first of all, I knew this team could do what we're doing. We've won two championships and we're chasing two more. But if you told me before the season that I'd have this kind of season, I would have been a little surprised. I was telling someone before the season, I just hope I find a way to make the travel roster and help out somehow."

He's done more than that. He's pitching even better than in 2009 (5-1 in nine appearances, 3.38 ERA as a freshman) and in 2010 (5-4 in 12 starts as No. 2 weekend starter).

"He's had an unbelievable year," said Collins. who coached Rakes for four years at Norcross before reuniting with him in college this season. "He's come back really well from it."

Collins is just as proud of what Rakes has done off the baseball field.

In a week, he will graduate with a 3.88 GPA. He's a double major -- economics and international business, along with business administration -- and will begin work on his MBA in 2012-13 while he plays his final season of college baseball.

He picked up a prestigious award last week when he was named SAC Scholar-Athlete of the Year in baseball for his combination of academics, athletics, service and leadership.

After next week's graduation, Rakes can shift his focus solely to baseball for awhile. He and his teammates are aiming for a Division II national title, and Rakes is happy to be 100 percent for the postseason.

"The arm feels good," Rakes said. "When I first came back, it was cold in February, and it took a lot of extra attention getting my arm ready for a game, like starting my warm-up routine earlier. And between innings getting warmed back up was a big deal.

"But now, later in the season, I've thrown 70 innings and the weather's warmer, it feels just like it did before."

BASEBALL

Echols gets GCSU award

North Gwinnett grad Travis Echols was named the Georgia College and State University athlete of the week on Wednesday.

The senior third baseman hit .375 with seven RBIs and five runs scored the previous week. He had four RBIs in a single inning after ripping a double and home run in a 13-run third inning of a an 18-2 rout of Columbus State.

SOFTBALL

Dickie, Coan, Martin named all-conference

Gwinnett was well-represented on the All-Peach Belt Conference softball team, including Buford's Melissa Dickie earning freshman of the year honors.

Dickie, also a second-team all-conference pick, was 17-0 for North Georgia this season with a 1.32 ERA.

Teammate Jessica Coan, a Greater Atlanta Christian grad, was a first-team all-conference pick. The senior had Peach Belt highs of 23 wins and 294 strikeouts, as well as a 1.32 ERA.

Dacula grad Kelsea Martin, a sophomore at Georgia College and State University, also was a first-team selection. She hit .325 with 24 RBIs and 20 runs scored.

Hadley named Gulf South's top pitcher

Valdosta State senior Alanna Hadley, a Dacula grad, was named the Gulf South Conference pitcher of the year this week.

Hadley was named the league's pitcher of the week five times this season and was national pitcher of the week once. She had a 22-2 record with a 0.66 ERA and 121 strikeouts this season.

Gwinnett Grads is a column that runs on Saturdays spotlighting achievements of past Gwinnett standouts. Coaches and parents are urged to send suggestions via email to will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com.