For Turk, Family Over Baseball

06/25/2010 – Daily News Record

By Mike Barber Daily News Record

HARRISONBURG – Connor Winn knew he could have gone to other schools and gotten playing time right away. But those options would have taken him much farther from his family’s home in Suwanee, Ga. – and farther from his sister.

Going into his senior year at Wesleyan High School in 2007, that wasn’t such a big factor for Winn, so he looked at schools in Pennsylvania and the Carolinas. But when his sister Madison, then 16, was diagnosed with brain cancer, leaving Georgia suddenly wasn’t something Winn was willing to do.

“It was so hard,” Winn, a Harrisonburg Turk from Georgia Tech, said. “My parents would stay in the hospital for weeks with her.”

That left Winn to take care of his other younger sister, Mackenzie, while his senior year at Wesleyan became largely an afterthought.

Not that Winn didn’t excel. Also a high school football player and diver, Winn led his baseball team to a state championship in 2008 and was an all-state selection.

“He was a home run hitter was what he was,” said Patrick Savage, another Suwanee native on the Turks’ roster. “He always killed us when we played them. He’s just an athlete. His team always beat mine. We always had good games, but his team always won.”

Even so, Winn’s mind was on his sister’s fight and the painful chemotherapy and radiation treatments she was undergoing.

Savage – a rising sophomore at Auburn – said before his Greater Atlanta Christian team would start games against Winn’s Wesleyan squad, there would be a moment of silent prayer for Madison.

Things started to pick up for Madison as the year went on, Winn said, and – after 220 days of hospitalization and three brain surgeries – she is cancer free.

Still, when Winn’s high school career ended, he narrowed his college choices to two for geographic reasons. He ended up picking Georgia Tech over the University of Georgia.

Georgia Tech assistant coach Bryan Prince joined the Yellow Jackets’ staff that same summer. Winn had already committed to Tech, so Prince – as a new coach – tried to get to know the recruit through occasional phone calls. He also saw Winn play in some summer tournaments.

Eventually, Prince learned of Madison’s illness.

“When I first got the job, as hectic and crazy as it was, I just called Connor on the phone,” Prince said. “When I found out about his sister, our conversations became more frequent. We made sure Connor knew we were there for him for anything he needed.”

At Georgia Tech, Winn has mostly been a reserve, playing behind shortstop Derek Dietrich and second baseman Jacob Esch. The 5-foot-10, 182-pounder – a sophomore last spring – even saw his playing time decrease in his second season at the Atlantic Coast Conference school.

“I think the problem is, he’s had some guys putting up some good numbers in front of him,” Prince said. “I think with Connor, he just needs to keep putting in the work.”

Prince recognizes that sitting on the bench isn’t an easy adjustment for an athlete who was the star of his team in high school.

“It’s the next step up,” Prince said. “For a lot of these guys, it might be the first time they’ve dealt with adversity. It’s the first time these players, leaving high school, are surrounded by guys who are just as good as you if not better.”

Winn agreed.

“Oh yeah, that’s tough,” he said. “Nothing I can do about it. I tried my best and it just didn’t happen the last two years.”

As a freshman in 2009, Winn saw action in 29 games, starting six. He was 6-for-29 with one home run and four RBIs. This year, Winn played in 18 games, starting one. He hit .294 (5-for-17) with two home runs and five RBIs.

But if going from big-man-on-campus to role player was messing with his psyche, Winn never let it show.

“He works hard in the weight room, he works hard in the cages,” Prince said. “He’s never really expressed frustration to us. But I know it’s not easy.”

This summer, Winn is getting plenty of playing time as he prepares to compete for a starting job for the Yellow Jackets when he returns to Georgia.

Dietrich was drafted in the second round by the Tampa Bay Rays.

Winn has helped re-energize a Turks team that started the year 1-4. He went 3-for-5 in both of his first two games and is a fixture in the lineup. The one night he didn’t play shortstop, he started in center field.

The Turks are 8-1 since Winn joined the club and have climbed to first place in the Valley League going into Thursday’s game at Covington. Winn was hitting .361 with 9 runs scored (second on the team) and 7 RBIs (fourth).

“During school ball, I wasn’t playing every day, so I thought it was real important to get in the mix and see pitches,” Winn said.