Signing day

With his parents Timm and Kalea Benner looking on, Great Crossing High School senior Seth Benner signs his national letter of intent Monday to play baseball at University of the Cumberlands.

There was only one high school field house and one varsity baseball team in the county at the time, and Seth Benner's first workout as an eighth-grader convinced all the coaches he'd be an impact player before too many more springs came and went.

But it's what Benner, then a new student at Georgetown Middle School after moving from Fulton, Missouri, did after he stepped out of the cage and put away his bat and glove that sold him as the real deal.

“As we always do with freshmen and eighth-graders, we kind of watch to see how they work,” Great Crossing baseball coach Greg Stratton, then a Scott County assistant, recalled. “Seth never said a word the whole night. Just put his head down, looked forward, worked hard all night long. At the very end of the night, he comes up to me and says, “Coach, thank you for the workout.' And I just stood there.

“We don't have players that do that. Then he went around to all the other coaches and said the same thing. So the coaches were standing around later, and one of them said, 'What about that Benner kid?' I said, 'He worked pretty hard, didn't he?' But what got us was him thanking us afterwards. We knew we had something pretty special coming.”

That talent and attitude have earned another opportunity at the next level. Surrounded by family, friends and coaches Monday at Noochie Varner Baseball and Softball Academy, Benner signed a national letter of intent to play for NAIA powerhouse University of the Cumberlands.

A versatile corner infielder and occasional outfielder with a sweet swing, Benner's approach to the older adults in the room hasn't changed now that he's a senior getting ready to take the world by storm.

“I remember it to this day,” Benner said of Stratton's anecdote. “It was a hard workout. I wanted to make sure to thank all the coaches for taking the time with me. Still to this day after every practice I go and shake all my coaches' hands and tell them thank you, because they've had a really big impact on my life and my baseball career and where I am today.”

Benner is the second GCHS prospect to sign with a college program before the Warhawks have even played their first varsity game in school history. Flame-throwing pitcher Jake Faherty finalized his plans with Wabash Valley College in Illinois last month.

Like the rest of the state, Great Crossing lost its 2020 spring sports season due to the early spread of COVID-19. Despite the loss of that proving ground, Benner had options. He chose Cumberlands over Wabash Valley and another junior college, Roane State in Tennessee, as well as NCAA Division II Kentucky Wesleyan.

“Getting my junior year taken away from me was really hard,” Benner said. “It's the prime year to get recruited. But I stayed after it, kept grinding and I got an offer. I went down there, looked at the campus, looked at the facilities and field, and I really loved it.”

Benner estimated that he played about 20 summer games with a Noochie Varner select team in his age group, traveling to tournaments throughout Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee.

Varner, the Cynthiana native who reached Triple-A and banged out more than 900 hits in an eight-year minor-league career, is a link to the Cumberlands clubhouse. While at Saint Catharine College, Varner played for Cumberlands head coach Brad Shelton, who has won a school-record 670 wins in 25 seasons with the Patriots.

“I still remember the first conversation I ever had with Seth. From now to then, we've spent a ton of time together, whether it's fishing, talking about hitting or talking about his future,” Varner said. “Everything Seth does, he take pride in. He's going to have a great career in baseball, and even after baseball he's going to go do something special. That's just what he stands for.”

Benner surfaced in the bottom half of Scott County's batting order as a sophomore and proved one of the most consistent hitters on a team that also featured future Division I players Trace Willhoite and Kyle Harbison and juco standout Cade McKee.

The Cardinals were 42nd District runners-up and dropped a 1-0 decision at Madison Central in the 11th Region quarterfinals.

“Sophomore year I was really young. I didn't really have a total lot of confidence. I just came in and did my thing,” Benner said. “Junior year at Great Crossing, I wanted to come in and be a leader for them on and off the field and really push our guys to the best of our capabilities and make a deep run. We had that going. We had a good fall and an extremely good winter. Our winter conditioning was really hard, but we pushed ourselves. We were really prepared.”

Stratton has seen those strong character traits continue to steer the Warhawks' program, even after the prolonged agony of eventually losing their entire inaugural season.

“His leadership, he's not a big-time vocal leader, but he leads by example and works hard every day. He gets better every day,” the coach said. “He's gotten a little more vocal on the field now, I'll say that. He'll get into a player if they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing.”

The third of Timm and Kalea Benner's four sons, Seth was born into a wrestling family. His two older siblings competed on the mat in college, Zach at the University of Central Missouri and Drew for Neosho County Community College in Kansas.

And the youngest Benner boy, Rowdy, was one of the most accomplished grapplers in Great Crossing's first-year program. Fate and his own varied interests kept Seth from making it four of a kind.

“When I was young, I wrestled. I was actually a state champion (in elementary school). But I got hurt really badly, had to have surgery and just never came back to it,” Benner said. “I just had a thing for baseball. I fell in love with baseball. I love everything about it.”

Benner's travel coach sees his star pupil as a natural who multiplies that effect with his tireless work ethic.

“I'd put him up with any hitter in the state of Kentucky right now when it comes to getting in there and grinding,” Varner said. “He's going to get it done, and that's a fact. He knows it. It's just not a question, He's going to go out and have a great high school season, then go out and earn a spot and be a starter next year at Cumberlands. Everything else will take care of itself.”

Cumberlands combined for 93 wins and only 21 losses in 2018 and 2019, making back-to-back NAIA World Series appearances. The Patriots were 22-3 when the 2020 campaign was cut short.

Twenty-two of Shelton's players over the years, including Varner, have been drafted into the professional ranks or signed as free agents.

“They're really good. They're a top-10 program every year for NAIA,” Benner said of Cumberlands. “They're competing to go to the World Series. They’ve got a really good field, really good campus and a pretty good hitting facility too.”

With the recent completion of the fall sports season and a delayed start in place for winter games on Jan. 4, Benner and Stratton are optimistic about getting back on the high school diamond in March.

“Just very, very proud of what he's doing. I'm looking forward to seeing what he's going to do for us this year,” Stratton said. “I know he's got a big, big year ahead, and I know Coach Shelton is really excited about getting him there at Cumberlands.

“He's not only getting a good baseball player, but a good student and a tremendous person with a great family and support structure. He's going to get to the next level. He wants to get there, and what gets him there will be his work ethic.”

Varner, whose all-star teams of every age group consistently win summer tournaments throughout the South and Midwest, had perceptible emotion in his voice as he discussed the qualities that set apart Benner from his peers.

“I try to make an impact on young kids, and I don't think Seth understands the impact that he's made on me since we met,” he said. “He's taught me a lot. That role kind of gets reversed some, and that's pretty special. It doesn't happen often with someone as young as Seth is.”

That maturity level pushed Benner over the top in what was a trying year for both sports and life in general.

“Our spring break trip getting canceled was pretty devastating. Then we went on spring break, and they said we weren't going to be in school for two more weeks,” Benner recalled. “You kept getting your hopes up, and it just kept getting added on and added on. I just kept grinding, throwing and hitting every day. I kept busy, kept pushing to make myself a better athlete and baseball player.”

Kal Oakes can be reached via email at sports@news-graphic.com.

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