Games are never enough practice for Elmore County baseball junior Sean Darnell.
After almost every contest the Panthers played in 2021, home or road, the infielder wasn’t to be found out at the mall with friends or at home resting. He’d be in batting cages, sometimes late into the night, ironing out the tiniest flaws in his swings from that evening.
“Nobody’s ‘good enough,’” Darnell said. “I’m not making money to play baseball, so I’m not good enough right now. That drives me to be better, to stay after games.”
It’s likely that work ethic drove his 2021 season for Elmore County, one of which saw him post the best batting average of the six teams covered by The Wetumpka Herald and Tallassee Tribune by a healthy margin. He was almost inarguably the most valuable player on the Panthers’ first playoff team in eight seasons.
As such, he’s the Herald’s choice for Elmore County Baseball Player of the Year.
“It’s the most amazing season I’ve ever seen,” Elmore County head coach Michael Byrd said. “I’ve never seen one like that. He started out the first ten games over .600. He’s at .520, and I looked at him and said, ‘You can’t keep going up man.’ Then he’s 2-for-3, 3-for-4, goes through two weeks of area play 11-for-14. He kept rising.”
Byrd and Darnell both noted the same source of his drive to improve: His parents, Keith and Melissa Darnell.
His mother and father taught him the value of practice and commitment from a young age.
“They say, ‘You get out what you put in,’” Darnell said. “Anything you do, do it to the fullest.”
That mentality has generated a tremendous level of self-awareness for the player, Byrd said.
“He knows his swing and knows his body,” Byrd said. “If it doesn’t look right or feel right, he goes and works until it feels right. And he doesn't take a bucket or two [of baseballs to the cage], he’ll be over there for two hours. We get back from a road trip, he’ll be up there 10 o’clock at night.”
Darnell posted respectable numbers in COVID-shortened 2020, batting .346 with a team-high 15 RBIs, but the then-underclassman remained unsatisfied.
He recorded five strikeouts against four walks in 10 games, and said he was disappointed by a lack of aggression at the plate.
“There’s always more progress to be made,” Darnell said. “Always more work to put in.”
Few could have anticipated the jump he took in 2021. Even the rare times he was retired were impressive.
“Just about every out he made was a hard-hit ball,” Byrd said. “Offensively he hit in that three hole, and as he went, we went. You just knew that he was gonna have a good at-bat, even if he didn’t get a hit.”
Of course, Darnell did collect plenty of hits. Fifty-five to be exact.
While the Elmore County area saw several hitters piece together incredible seasons at the plate, some with better power numbers than Darnell, who hit one home run — Wetumpka third baseman Kyle Morrison and Edgewood Academy catcher Alex Johnson, most notably — Darnell’s value to the Panthers is hard to compete with.
It went beyond his .545 batting average. He led the Panthers in RBIs, doubles and triples. He was one of the toughest outs in the county, with just seven strikeouts in 119 plate appearances.
Darnell was the Panthers’ No. 2 pitching option, posting a 2.58 ERA in 38 innings of work. He was a utility infielder, being moved wherever his squad needed a defender, including behind the plate as a catching option.
“He’s one of those guys, if he said, ‘Everybody, we’re practicing at 2:30 in the morning,’ everyone would be there at 2:30 in the morning,” Byrd said. “They see how he works. He doesn’t speak out loud a whole lot, but when he says something, they all know and they’re all gonna do it.”
Entering his final season at Elmore County, Darnell has lofty ambitions after the steps his team took the step it did in 2021.
Asked for his goals in 2022, he didn’t note any as an individual and kept his list short for the team.
“Number one goal next year is to get a ring,” Darnell said. “That is the only goal I have, to get a ring next year. It’s gonna take a whole team effort. I gotta do what I gotta do in the offseason, work hard, make myself better. If I don’t make myself better I won’t make the team better.”