MELISSA — It would be hard to name a better spot for two high school baseball players to sign their college letters of intent to compete at the next level: home plate at their home field on a sun-splashed spring day. That’s exactly what Cardinal standouts Andrew Cole and Tate Whittington did on Wednesday, April 11, surrounded by family, teammates and coaches at the Melissa Sports Facility.

Whittington, District 11-4A’s Co-MVP in 2017, signed with Cisco College while Cole, the district’s Pitcher of the Year last season, did likewise with East Texas Baptist University.

Cole posted a 1.57 ERA in 58 inning of work during the 2017 regular season with 50 strikeouts. He also pitched the Cards to a clutch Game 2 victory over Decatur in their tight, area round playoff series. Whittington batted .485 in 66 plate appearances last season and pitched the crucial save versus Decatur.

“It’s exciting for what the future holds and what Cisco has for me,” said Whittington, who also starred for the football Cardinals at quarterback, receiver and linebacker. “I’ve always wanted to play D-I baseball and I think this is my route to get there.”

Choosing Cisco, he said, wasn’t difficult. “I really liked it when I was there. I liked the coaches a lot. I’ve been in contact with them for a while.” Then there’s the fact that Melissa graduate and former football teammate Gunnar Murphy is there. “That’s a plus,” Whittington said. “It was definitely an incentive. I’ll be with one of my best buddies down there so it’ll be good.”

The NJCAA Division I Cisco Wranglers compete in the Region V Athletic Conference. Whittington, an outfielder, reliever and utility player for the Cards, said a highlight of his days here has been the relationships he’s formed.

“Some of the best friends I’ve made have all been here in Melissa. And some coaches I’ll be friends with and be in contact with the rest of my life.”

As for role models, Whittington named Cards head baseball coach Jason Russell and Cards head football coach Seth Stinton. “They’ve been big role models for me, men I look up to every day,” Whittington said. “Then [former Melissa shortstop] Camden Duzenack, who’s playing in the minors right now. He’s someone I’ve looked up to since I was little. I continue to look up to those guys and try to be like them in every aspect of my life.”

Whittington said he’s interested in studying either business or kinesiology and will decide later.

“I just feel great,” Cole said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s one of my dreams that I’ve had. Getting to play baseball at the next level is just amazing for me. It’s great to have my family here with me today.”

Cole, who also plays third base, pointed to his great-grandfather as having a big influence on his life.

“He’s helped us through a lot and been one of my biggest role models,” he said. “He’s always been there for me.”

Cole added that seniors throughout his Cardinal playing days taught him a lot about the game and leadership.

As for ETBU, “I just liked the people, I liked the coaches,” Cole said. “It’s a great atmosphere there. And they have nice facilities.” The NCAA Division III Tigers are members of the American Southwest Conference.

For now, he plans to study business and finance but added that could change.

Cole said highlights for him while at Melissa include playoff runs and being around teammates. “I’ve been here all my life,” he said, “so I’ll probably miss all my friends once I go up there. But I’ll make new ones. I’ll miss the people here and my family.”

“It’s special,” Russell said of this occasion. “It’s what we’re here for. These guys come out and work really hard, year-round. It’s good to see them get rewarded for their efforts. And it’s good for our young guys to see - ‘Hey, if you do it the right way, you’re going to have a good chance to go play at the next level.’ It’s exciting, it’s a great day. I’m very proud of those guys. It’s been a blessing to see them grow up.

“For three years now, [Cole] is the guy you just depend on to run out there every other game and compete and give you everything he has on the mound. And he’s gotten so much better offensively. … Really, he’s priceless. What would we do without the guy?

“Tate is a four-year starter. He’s hit all over the lineup, from the middle of the order to the lead-off spot. He’s the big leader. He’s the guy you’ll look to when things are not quite going as well as they should be. He’s been really fun to watch and a blessing to coach.”

“Sad, but happy,” is how Cole’s mom Kristie Cole summed up her feelings. “He’s worked hard to get to this point so I’m excited for him — a new adventure in life.”

“I wish him the best of luck,” added dad Steven Cole. “And I’ll follow him as far as he can go.”

“We’re proud that he’s taking on, doing what he wants to do,” Whittington’s father Charlie Whittington said. “And I’m glad that he’s following his dream and wants to play. … I’ve always told him it’s always a lot of fun just to watch him play.”

“It’s been fun,” mom Diane Whittington said. “We’re going to be sad when he’s done but we can follow him next year. … He’s our last one so it’s the hardest. But I’m excited for him because he’s worked hard to go on.”

Of course, neither player’s Melissa career is yet finished. The Cards are currently battling for a district title, tied for first place with Princeton with four games left. “We’re going to finish district strong,” Whittington said. “And I feel like we’re going to make a pretty good run in the playoffs. I’m looking forward to it.”