By Trey Williams
Paul Hoilman has deep thoughts every year around this time.
He never made it to a College World Series with East Tennessee State, but the former Science Hill slugger won the inaugural College Home Run Derby in Omaha in 2010.
The 6-foot-4 Hoilman launched 12 home runs in the final round to deal a decisive blow to Georgia Tech’s Matt Skole and Fresno State’s Jordan Ribera. Skole is the nephew of Tony Skole, who was Hoilman’s Home Run Derby pitcher and coach at ETSU.
Ribera hit one home run in the last round. Skole hit none in the final round. Hoilman, who said he weighed 245 pounds at the time, appeared to demoralize the duo by blasting five straight when he was down to his final out.
It was the only year the derby was at Rosenblatt Stadium, which was replaced by TD Ameritrade Park the following year.
“I just went in thinking, ‘I need to compete and put up some respectable numbers and we’ll see what happens,’” Hoilman said. “I just wanted to compete. I didn’t want to put up a goose egg or have some embarrassingly low round or anything.
“So I just kind of went in without a whole lot of expectations, which was probably good. And Coach Skole knew where I liked it and we got in a little groove and, you know, the rest is history.”
Hoilman was the Atlantic Sun Conference player of the year that season as a junior. He hit .421, which was 64 points higher than the closest teammate, Bo Reeder.
Hoilman led the country in total bases and slugging percentage (.860) and he was among the nation’s top 25 in home runs (25), RBIs (84), hits (99), doubles (24), runs (79) and walks (51). He set a career record for RBIs as a junior and tied Buccaneers slugger Mike Nipper in career home runs (51) before his senior year.
A number of people have said he should’ve had 52 home runs at the end of his junior season. A would-be home run he hit off Chris Sale at Florida Gulf Coast in 2010 was ruled foul.
“The first pitch was 96 miles an hour and Paul turned it around for a home run,” Skole said. “Everybody said it was fair.”
Certainly, Hoilman did. It was his habit to remain in the batter’s box on potential home runs headed near the foul pole. You never know when an umpire might need an extra set of eyes.
“But this ball was so fair that I just started jogging,” he said. “I got almost to second base.”
Hoilman had gotten a borderline call on an inside fastball the previous pitch, and Sale was hot.
“I knew in that moment that he thought he could throw his fastball by me inside,” Hoilman said. “So the next pitch I’m sitting dead red, ready for action. And he came right back with the exact same pitch and I hit it a mile.”
A long-armed 6-foot-6 left-hander, Sale was an MLB All-Star seven straight seasons (2012-18) and the fastest pitcher ever to reach 2,000 strikeouts (1,626 innings) in the majors.
“He definitely made a name for himself in the big leagues,” Hoilman said. “I know he’s been hurt … but I think he’s one of the nastiest pitchers out there.”
Hoilman had homered off Sale the previous year at Cardinal Park, a blast he’ll always treasure.
“He’s as long as anybody and he threw across his body,” Hoilman said. “He had a low sidearm slot almost, and you know, just a totally different angle coming at you than anybody else, which is always hard regardless of what’s behind it. And in his case, he had a lot behind it too.
“He had a good fastball, good changeup and good slider. So he’s nasty for sure. I definitely cherish the fact that I at least got one off of him.”
Other long balls on Hoilman’s short list include one he hit off another future major leaguer at Cardinal Park, Lipscomb first-round pick Rex Brothers, and one he launched at Clemson against Will Lamb. Hoilman watched video of Brothers and had left-hander Matt McGahey, a former ETSU player and fellow Science Hill alum, simulate Brothers’ release in a practice session the night before Lipscomb opened a three-game series with the Bucs.
“McGahey and I were friends and he had a similar arm slot, left-handed,” Hoilman said. “So I called him up on a random Thursday and said, ‘Hey, Rex Brothers and Lipscomb come to town Friday. Can I can I get you in the cage to throw to me?’ And he’s like, ‘Hell yeah.’
“Rex was a hard-throwing lefty and I prepared for him for about three or four days before he got there. And in the first inning, he threw me a fastball down the middle and I hit it to the moon. I think it was first-pitch fastball.”
Hoilman had enjoyed watching McGahey play at Science Hill. Other Hilltoppers he liked watching included Shane Byrne and the Crowe brothers, Brandon and Nick, who’d played at the Johnson City Major Little League field a number of years before him.
“So I kind of had heard the legend of them at eight years old,” Hoilman said. “I’d go watch their games (at Science Hill) and they were phenomenal.”
Bill McKinney-coached Science Hill finished third in the state during Hoilman’s junior and senior seasons (2006-07). Bartlett, which seemed rather pedestrian to Hoilman, eliminated the ‘Toppers each year by a 6-5 score.
“They just singled us and bunted us to death,” Hoilman said. “It was just a miserable team to lose to and I don’t care for Bartlett to this day. … Bartlett was brutally boring. I didn’t feel like they were better than us.
“It’s one thing to get beat by the Yankees. It’s another thing to get beat by guys that just – I swear they were just hitting ground balls up the middle and in the six hole.”
Hoilman pitched a two-hitter at Karns as a junior in the sectional victory. He retired 15 of the final 16 batters.
The following year he was 10-1 with a 2.48 ERA and 76 strikeouts in 59 1/3 innings.
“Paul was a pleasure to coach,” McKinney said. “Extremely hard worker, great teammate and even better overall person. … The pitching performance in the substate game (at Karns) was special. Paul and Matt Rice (catcher) were the team leaders and their leadership led to several great seasons.”
Hoilman, Rice and Dylan Pratt had played together as far back as when they were six or seven years old. Rice was an All-Sun Belt Conference catcher at Western Kentucky and got drafted by the New York Yankees in the 50th round.
Pratt was the Big Nine Conference player of the year at Daniel Boone, where he set single-season and career records in home runs and RBIs. He was an all-conference player at Walters State, red-shirted at Vanderbilt before returning to Walters State and participated in the College Home Run Derby the year after Hoilman won it thanks to hitting 15 home runs in his first season at ETSU.
They won a lot of games and had a lot of fun playing travel-ball for the Johnson City Heat, which was coached by Gary Swartz and Dean Baggett.
“Gary and Dean were fun coaches,” Hoilman said. “They’d throw to ya in the cage until you were too tired and didn’t want to anymore.”
The Heat’s pitchers included Danny Killian.
“At 13 and 14, Danny Killian was an incredible pitcher,” Hoilman said.
Killian pitched a one-hitter when Scott Farms defeated Hoilman and BJ’s Best, 3-0, in the Little League city tournament championship at Lions Field.
“He was disgusting at 12 years old from 46 feet or whatever it was,” Hoilman said. “He was blowing it in there.”
Hoilman played shortstop when he didn’t pitch for the Heat. Pratt said Hoilman, not known for his range, was a sure-handed shortstop with strong, accurate arm. He’d been watching Hoilman quite a while by the time they were teenagers.
“Me and Paul and Matt Rice played together on Tee-ball and coach-pitch teams for this Yankees team,” Pratt said. “I don’t know if we had a game where a team came within 10 runs of us.”
Rice and Hoilman were opponents in the Johnson City Major Little League at Old Kiwanis Park. It was there that Hoilman hit what must’ve been his sweetest home run.
“Paul and I had been buddies since the first grade and constantly played ball together,” Rice said. “So naturally, when we played against each other in Little League, we talked some smack. I don’t remember exactly how it happened but Paul bet me five Airheads (candy) – high stakes – that he would hit a home run off me in the first game we played each other. And sure enough, first at-bat, he took me yard. He hit a lot of home runs in his day but that one sticks out most to me.
“Paul played hard, he delivered and he had an ability to raise the game of everyone around him. And he’s an even better friend.”
Pratt could hit a baseball long distances. So it was impressive hearing him recall, rather incredulously, the time an employee at the Post Office behind TVA Credit Union Ballpark called the police because baseballs were repeatedly landing too close for comfort.
Hoilman, Pratt, Bo Reeder and Derek Trent comprised ETSU’s final group in pre-game batting practice, and they put on a show this particular day, especially Hoilman.
“I mean Paul hit probably 10 balls that were still going up when they went over the Dr. Enuf sign,” Pratt said. “And all the sudden we look over, you know, kind of finishing up BP, and there’s a couple of police officers like walking in the side right next to the dugout, walking onto the field.”
The officers motioned Skole over, Pratt said.
“And they (postal workers) alleged that we had to be playing a joke on them and hitting balls at the Post Office from second base,” Pratt said. “They literally thought we were just messing with them, just throwing balls up, I guess, and hitting them at the Post Office from second base.”
Pratt said Hoilman hit one of the longest home runs he ever saw during that series.
“I think it was a 2-0 fastball or something,” Pratt said. “Just like those balls he hit in BP, I think it was still going up when it went over the Dr. Enuf sign. I’d be shocked if the tape on that thing was anything less than 450-460 feet. It was just murdered.”
In separate conversations, Hoilman and Pratt each noted a line-drive home run Hoilman hit against Furman. Pratt said he didn’t think the ball would be high enough to go over the fence. He and Hoilman each recalled the outfielder breaking laterally toward the gap instead of back toward the fence.
Hoilman had been in a relative slump, Pratt said, and decided to go to a Justin Turner-like leg-kick. It paid dividends with some tape-measure clouts in batting practice.
“If you knew a fastball was coming, you could feast with the leg-kick,” Pratt said. “And his second at-bat, or it might’ve been his first, he hits a frickin’ fastball and I’m telling you the exit velocity had to be 115 miles an hour off the bat. It was a low line-drive and it cleared the fence by 50 feet. It’s one of the hardest hit balls I’ve ever seen.
“And I remember him coming into the dugout and just being like, ‘The leg-kick works.’ … I would love to know what the exit velocity was on that baseball. I’d be shocked if it was less than 110 miles an hour.”
A lot of college programs wanted Hoilman to pitch. ETSU offered to let him attempt to pitch and be a position player.
Pratt had success batting against Hoilman in high school, although he said he had the advantage of familiarity. And he might’ve caught a break from umpire Dale Ford on a 2-2 fastball in a game at Daniel Boone.
“Paul legitimately threw, you know, he’d sit 85, 86, 88 miles an hour,” Pratt said. “He could run it up in the low 90s if his arm’s feeling good. Now, he did have a flat fastball, but he could throw the thing in a tea cup. Paul has the best control of anyone I’ve ever seen. …
“It was a 2-2 count and Paul throws this beautiful – just dots an inside fastball. I mean, it was right on the black. And we actually had it on video. And Dale, for whatever reason, I think he just wanted to see something happen, called it a ball. And Paul was livid, livid because he just knew.
“And if I’m honest, I think it was a hair inside. But there ain’t many umpires – when a guy throws that pitch in that situation, they’re ringing you up.”
Hoilman threw a strike on the ensuing pitch and Pratt hit it over the fence in right-center field.
“But he always gives me crap about it,” Pratt said, “like, ‘You know, I struck you out, right?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s up for debate.’”
Hoilman and Pratt were roommates the year they were teammates at ETSU. They had an apartment off Seminole Drive, and Pratt said the apartment living room had lots of mirrors and weights. Hoilman was seemingly always strengthening his forearms.
“I can’t tell you how many countless hours at night we would spend just sitting there just talking baseball, talking swings,” Pratt said, “like both of us taking turns getting up in front of the mirror by looking at our swings looking at our stances just trying to get better in any way shape or form. He is a relentless worker, man, and obviously a great guy, great human being. He was just really a grinder and was always in love with the process. He got more joy out of practicing the little things and thinking through the little parts of baseball. … Living together that year, we just had a blast.”
Playing for Science Hill was a blast, Hoilman says. He played for Andy Wallen his sophomore season. He also enjoyed assistant coaches Jeff Reed and Josh Carter.
When Ryan Edwards coached Science Hill to a state championship in 2021, Hoilman felt a strong connection.
“I know Coach Edwards well,” Hoilman said, “and really like him and, you know, appreciate his efforts and everything he’s been doing for the program.”
Hoilman was the district tournament MVP as a sophomore, all but carrying Science Hill out of the losers’ bracket to beat Dobyns-Bennett back-to-back games. After hitting a grand slam to force the if-necessary game, Hoilman went 3-for-4 with three doubles and two RBIs.
His first double came off D-B ace Duran Ferguson, who went on to pitch at Kentucky. Ferguson and Hoilman had been on the same field as far back as Little League.
“Duran had a really good run in high school,” Hoilman said. “Duran was always a big dude and a bad dude on the field. I mean at least as I remember, whether it’s true or not, but I think he was more like 88 to 92, and probably sat around 90.”
Hoilman’s college years included another Home Run Derby title. He won the Cape Cod League’s derby at Fenway Park in 2010.
Hoilman was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 19th round in 2011 and played two seasons in the minors. He hit a team-record 17 home runs for short-season Single-A Boise in 2011 and hit eight home runs and made the Midwest League All-Star team in his second season.
“I had one walk-off home run on the Fourth of July my first year with the Cubs,” Hoilman said. “That one was pretty special because I had been in just a brutal slump, and finally reconnected with a baseball. That one felt good.
“In my second year I tried to cut back on strikeouts and I lost some weight coming into that year trying to get a little faster. And I started out my second year strong and made the All-Star team mid-year. And then second half I really didn’t do well at all and got hurt, I hurt my hand, you know, towards the end of the season.”
Hoilman bounced back and was having a solid Spring Training the following year.
“And you know, I didn’t make it through the end of that camp,” he said. “They called me in one day and, you know, told me that was the end of the road. At this point in life, you know, I’m happy. I think everything happens for a reason. I’ve got a family and a good job, and had so many great experiences in baseball in college and in the minors, and I’m grateful for all of that.”