FORT SMITH -- When the Fort Smith Sportsman's initial lineup of the season is put together in four days, there will be a host of new names on it.
The person writing it down for the first time in 11 seasons will be new as well.
Shea Hamilton, a Fort Smith Southside graduate, takes over for Trey Prieur, who guided the American Legion program to a state title and a regional appearance last year. Hamilton couldn't be more thrilled to be the sixth manager in the program's lengthy history after learning from former Sportsman managers earlier in his career.
"This has been very exciting," Hamilton said. "It's an honor to be the next coach here. This is a program that I grew up watching and idolizing the coaches. I've been fortunate enough to learn from some of the best ones around here in this area in Alan Swaim, Denny Lundquist, Chuck Holcombe, [Lawrence] "Squeaky" Smith and Bill Breedlove among others. Those were quality guys with Trey Prieur in there as well."
Not much will be new for Hamilton taking over the team. He is a longtime area coach even getting his start before he graduated high school. He has been with the Sportsman organization for seven years and has served as coach for both the Forsgren Sportsman AA team and the Fort Smith Sportsman junior team.
His squads have advanced to the state tournament every year, including a runner up finish at the AA State Tournament in 2020. Hamilton is a known servant of the community for athletics. He is the Director of Instructional Clinics for Fort Smith Youth Baseball & Softball and is a former Champion of Youth for the Fort Smith Boys & Girls Club.
Hamilton also has given back by being a high school football and basketball referee in his career. Hamilton likes to keep his goals as a coach simple: he wants the team to have fun, help them be better people outside the sport and aid them on their journey in baseball if they want to play at the next level.
"I have a passion to teach life lessons through baseball," Hamilton said. "That's one of the things that my kids out here don't realize. I tend to sprinkle baseball into the life lessons. They think we are just playing baseball, but we are really out here learning how to handle failure, adversity and how to serve in a role. Many of these kids won't play college or professional baseball. But every single one of them will be fathers, husbands and employees. If I can teach those guys how to do that a little bit better, I consider my time a success."
Hamilton can't quite pin down when his affection for America's pastime all started, but he has been around it pretty much his entire life. Coaching felt like a natural fit for him early in his career with a devotion to helping others succeed.
"I enjoyed it at a young age," Hamilton said. "It wasn't a sport in high school just yet. I stopped playing at the junior high level because curve balls and bad eyes started around the same time. I wasn't too good, but I immediately started coaching when I was 16 years old. It's been something I've really enjoyed."
Hamilton was the media relations director for the Arkansas Razorback baseball team during 1987-1991. That was a big turning point for him, deeply falling in love with baseball while being around some of the greatest baseball minds in the school's history.
"My passion really just developed from that and being around the Razorback baseball program for such a long time," Hamilton said. "I got to be a small, small part of two College World Series teams. I got to learn so much from Norm DeBriyn, Doug Clark, Dave Jorn, John Luedtke and Dave Van Horn, who was a graduate assistant when I was there. That was pretty special."
The Sportsman will get a very good early evaluation of themselves playing at Hot Springs in a tournament this week hosted by Bryant with games May 25-28. Some of the better programs in the state will be there with Bryant, Conway, Russellville and Sheridan all in the field to open up the season.
"This tournament will be loaded with talent," Hamilton said. "We will have some really tough competition right off the bat. It's pretty much a small state tournament. Really good teams and coaches all around. It will be a good opportunity to go on the road, get our team together with bonding and at the same time measure where we are at early and what we need to work on."
The Sportsman were finalizing their roster this week with tryouts Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday narrowing down which Arkansas and Oklahoma local talent would make the team.
Hamilton said the makeup of the squad will be a little different this year with fewer returners than normal. One thing was certain for Hamilton during the workouts: there was plenty of talent to select.
"Usually we do bring a few kids back every year, but this is probably one of the few years when it will be pretty much a brand new bunch," Hamilton said. "We have a lot of great athletes and baseball players in this area due to the coaches at the high school and youth levels. It shows in what kind of product we put on the field every summer. There is some good baseball being played in this area."
Perhaps the biggest projected key returner will be Jett Frazier, a Fort Smith Northside graduate coming off a freshman season at Carl Albert State College. The right-hander pitched 21 innings while getting 21 strikeouts making an impact on the mound right away. He received just two at-bats but will have plenty of opportunities to show what he can do as a two-way player this summer. Frazier was clutch for the Sportsman last year, as he provided a game-winning hit.
"Jett will be a key returner for us without a doubt," Hamilton said. "We are planning on him having a big summer for us. If we are going to be successful, he is going to be a big part of it. He can do it all pitching and hitting. There is a strong chance if he isn't pitching for us, he will be in the lineup because he is so athletic."
An additional projected returner for the Sportsman is another Northside product in Eli Calderera, who just finished up his playing time for the Grizzlies as a senior. He will play a corner infield or outfield position most days for the Sportsman.
"He has really hit well for Northside the last few years," Hamilton said. "He did some good things for us last year as well. We are expecting big things out of him."
Regardless of who takes the field for the team, Hamilton knows the standard for the Sportsman. He has admired the program from afar early in his career, but he has been a big part of it in recent history. Hamilton was with the team during the state and regional tournament runs last year as an assistant. He has seen with his own eyes the goals of the program, and he wants to help them get back there and push for even more.
"No pressure at all taking over after a state title," Hamilton said with a laugh. "Just continue winning titles, going to regionals and maybe get past that and end up going to an American Legion World Series. But we really just want to keep the program's success going. I just want to maintain what has been going on. Trey did such a good job. If we can keep it going, that will be a success for me."
2023 Sportsman Schedule
May 25-28^Bryant tournament#
June 2-4^AAA Fort Smith tournament
June 13^Bryant and Sheridan!
June 15-18^Twin Lakes Classic*
June 28-July 2^Winget Tournament%
July 11^at Conway
July 14-16^at Connors State College
July 20-28^AAA State Tournament
# at Hot Springs
! at Bryant
* at Mountain Home
% at Bartlesville (Okla.)
Subject to change with additional weekday dates