VALDOSTA — National champions, All-Americans, prolific scorers, a major contributor to the sports department and a rare three-sport athlete.
Valdosta State put together quite the class for the its 20th Athletic Hall of Fame induction on Saturday at the Student Union Ballroom.
The Blazers welcomed the inductions of the 2011 national championship tennis team, along with key members Daniel Dueren and Phillip Pakebusch, Alyssa Shirey, Ron Fortner, Pam Hand Smith, Frank Gonzalez and Marty McGhin into the Hall of Fame with brunch in the ballroom on the third floor of the Student Union.
Led by Dueren, an All-American three consecutive years from 2009-11, and Pakebusch, an two-time All-American in 2010-11, Valdosta State tennis broke through to win the program’s second NCAA Division II national championship 5-2 against Barry University in 2011.
John Hansen, the head coach of both VSU’s men and women’s tennis teams for the past 43 years, accepted a plaque on behalf of Pakebusch, who couldn’t make the trip from his home in Germany, and after the ceremony, he spoke about what made the 2011 team so special.
“They were special from the first day they got on campus,” Hansen said of the 2011 team that finished 17-1, including 5-0 in the Gulf South Conference. “A lot of them knew each other before they got here, so they were bonding already. The encouragement that they gave each other was just unbelievable.”
Just a year before the tennis national championship, Shirey capped off her two-year softball career as a Blazer by being named the 2010 Gulf South Conference East Player of the Year, ranking fourth in the nation with 20 home runs, a .416 batting average and an .809 slugging percentage.
In her speech, Shirey said she felt her career hadn’t flourished until she arrived at Valdosta State, despite winning a national championship in junior college. Shirley endured the frustrating process of completely rebuilding her swing with head coach Thomas Macera during a redshirt season before breaking onto the scene as a catcher and right fielder in 2009.
In 2010, Shirey was a key component in a team that went 51-9 and made it to the national championship game before falling just short of a title. In her two seasons at Valdosta State, Shirey went 45-7 in GSC play and 108-17 overall with 154 hits, 23 doubles, 37 home runs, 84 runs and 125 RBIs.
An interesting contrast to the student-athletes that made hay less than a decade ago, Fortner attended Valdosta State a long way from his home in Indiana from 1964-68, committing to the school after taking a 25-hour bus ride to a recruiting trip in which then-head basketball coach Gary Colson picked up Fortner from the Greyhound station and took him to the gym where he’d stay the night in a bunk bed with who would later become his best friend.
Fortner was treated to pizza and a western at the ‘Dosta Theater, but it was Colson and head baseball coach Billy Grant’s confidence to offer Fortner a full scholarship — half basketball, half baseball — without as much as seeing him throw a pitch or shoot a jump shot that secured the Hall of Fame inductee’s commitment.
Fortner rewarded the two coaches’ faith with three All-GIAC selections in four years (1964-68) as a starting pitcher for the baseball team and four seasons with the Valdosta State College Rebels basketball team, including the 1967-68 season that saw him named Team MVP for his contributions as the starting point guard on the team finish 24-10 and score its second ever victory in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Tournament before falling against eventual tournament champions Central State (Ohio).
Apparently Fortner decided to give Valdosta State a discount on his scholarship and add a pro bono cross country conference championship to his illustrious resume.
In an emotional speech, the 2016 inductee told the story of how his sophomore year he and one of the team managers rounded up some of his fellow basketball players and managers to run in the cross county conference championship on a month and a half of practice.
Both ran cross country in high school, but at the time Valdosta State didn’t have a cross country team, much less a coach. The rag-tag band still managed to win the GIAC conference championship.
“In the yearbook they had a picture of us,” Fortner said. “‘Valdosta State cross country champions,’ and we all had white basketball sweatshirts on.”
Hand Smith knows plenty about basketball herself, the sport she began playing as a 6-year-old and remains her passion even today.
After winning back-to-back state championships in high school, Hand Smith looked for a college that could act as a home away from home, and she found it at Valdosta State, where she averaged 14.3 points per game over 105 games from 1984-88.
Hand Smith finished her career ranked ninth all-time in scoring in Valdosta State history with 1,501 career points.
“I think this validates to my husband all the story I told him of how great I was,” Hand Smith said during a speech, inciting a roar of laughter.
Gonzalez shouldn’t have any trouble getting anyone to believe his Hall of Fame credentials as Saturday marked the second time he’s been enshrined as a Blazer.
Starting second baseman on Valdosta State’s 1979 national championship team, Gonzalez, and the rest of the team, were honored as a part of the 2005 Hall of Fame class.
But Gonzalez was plenty deserving of individual recognition as well with a career .301 average, 116 hits, 99 runs, 84 RBIs, 22 doubles and 19 home runs.
“I was surprised, obviously, to hear about it,” Gonzalez said. “I knew that they had a Hall of Fame here, but I really wasn’t expecting to be inducted individually.
“I came in in 2005 with the 1979 national championship baseball team, and I thought that was it, so Whit Chappell called me and it’s an awesome surprise to be here.”
McGhin was the only Hall of Fame inductee without a single point or run to his name, but the long-time Valdosta State contributor has been just important to the history of the program.
A VSU alum, McGhin has been a key supporter of the school’s athletic department for more than a decade, and he currently serves as a volunteer with the football team and as the team chaplain for the Blazer basketball team.
Despite McGhin joking that he was entering the Hall of Fame as an, “athletic supporter, or a jock strap,” Valdosta State athletic director Herb Reinhardt reaffirmed his importance to the program.
“There’s not many people as instrumental to the success of, not only the athletic department, but Valdosta State University, as Marty McGin, and Leslie, his wife, also, Reinhardt said. “Marty has been a financial supporter, no doubt, but perhaps Marty’s bigger role is the impact that he has had on student-athletes and students.
“Marty is the driving force behind why VSU has one of the very first FCA chapters in a Division II institution any where in the country.”
Derrick Davis is the sports editor at the Valdosta Daily Times.