Derek Hamblen isn’t certain if Belmont University President Bob Fisher remembers the encounter. But Hamblen and Matt Hamann do.
The pair were on a recruiting trip to Belmont five years ago after Hamblen had already committed to play baseball for the Bruins. Hamblen happened to run into Fisher during the visit and he made a lofty promise, guaranteeing he would guide Belmont to its first Atlantic Sun Conference tournament championship.
“I guess I was a little more cocky or confident — if you will — back then with my words,” Hamblen said. “I was going to bring him home an A-Sun championship before I left here. It took four years but we did it… Our main goal was to do something a team here hadn’t done yet.”
Hamblen made true on that promise last week when the Bruins went undefeated en route to the A-Sun tournament title. Belmont (36-24) will play in its first NCAA Regional when it battles Vanderbilt (47-10) at 7 p.m. on Friday at Hawkins Field.
Hamblen, a senior captain, has been in the middle of the Bruins’ late-season run. The left fielder was named the MVP of the Atlantic Sun tournament after he collected six hits, five RBIs, two home runs and scored six runs in four games. In addition, his two-run, two-out home run in the top of the ninth inning on Friday against Mercer lifted Belmont into the title game.
“I haven’t been the go-to guy all year,” Hamblen said. “I have struggled a lot of the times and a lot of these guys have picked me up. By the grace of God, I guess it has been my turn here at the end of the season.”
As Belmont’s leadoff hitter, Hamblen has been the key that starts the engine. The right-hander ranks first in hits (78) and stolen bases (26), third in both batting average (.322) and home runs (11), fourth in doubles (17) and fifth in RBIs (36).
“He could —and I would venture to say has — hit in every slot in my lineup probably at some point throughout his career,” Belmont head coach Dave Jarvis said. “He has played probably seven different positions on the field at some point. He has speed. He has power. He has a lot of tremendous gifts.”
Hamblen came to Belmont from Plano West High in Texas. But he was born and lived in Chattanooga until he was 8 years old and still has family there and in Alabama.
In fact, Hamblen is a distant cousin of Belmont senior forward Mick Hedgepeth, who is from Crossville, Ala.
Their grandfathers were first cousins and used to attend basketball games together. Hedgepeth, coincidently, actually was the tournament MVP of the A-Sun basketball tournament this past March.
Hamblen, however, stumbled into the Bruins. After competing at a showcase tournament for college coaches at Piedmont College in Georgia, Hamblen received a call from Jason Stein. Now the head coach at Eastern Kentucky, Stein was an assistant at Belmont from 2001-07.
Even with his Tennessee roots, Hamblen had never heard of Belmont. But quickly he did his research and compared the school to interest he received from the Naval Academy, Texas-San Antonio and several junior colleges.
“None really stood out like Belmont and a city like Nashville, too,” Hamblen said. “It was just for me. After coming out here and visiting — I actually committed before I visited — I kind of just fell in love with the campus, with the university, with everything it had to offer… I could have not of thought of a better opportunity to go play baseball anywhere.”
Hamblen has made the most of his time on the diamond, starting 227 of the 228 games in his career. As a freshman, he finished in the top-five in seven offensive categories. As a sophomore and junior, he led the team in doubles. Last year, he was second on the team with an impressive .366 batting average and enjoyed a 22-game hitting streak.
“He has definitely come a long way since freshman year, especially with his power and his average,” Hamann, Belmont’s right-handed starting pitcher, said. “His average has always been real solid but the power has come along the last two years… He has grown up a ton. It is great to play with him and watch him be the leader everyone knew he could be.”
Hamblen graduated earlier in May with a degree in business administration and has already started an internship with Northwestern Mutual off Music Row.
There is a chance, however, that his baseball career will continue. At 6-foot and 180 pounds, Hamblen possesses good speed — on both the base paths and in the outfield — and has some pop in his bat that might intrigue professional scouts.
“That has always been a dream. I really just think back on these four years — I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Hamblen said. “I am just focused on what we have next at hand and the rest will kind of take care of itself, not try to get too far ahead of myself and let the chips fall where they may.”