Walters State baseball coach Dave Shelton has been a part of six JUCO World Series teams, including a national championship in 2006, since joining the Senators coaching staff in 2003, so he has seen his fair share of talented players and teams in 15 years on the Morristown campus.
For the now fifth-year head coach to say the 2018 team may be the most talented, and deepest, team he has coached is quite a statement. Oh, and they have plenty of motivation too.
After sitting out the postseason in 2017 following a 44-12 campaign due to a one-year probation period, the Senators are back in title chasing mode entering this season, and their aim isn’t just at the regional level. They begin the season ranked third in the country by Perfect Game, ranked behind No. 1 San Jacinto-North and No. 2 Chipola, the two teams that played for the national title last season.
While a NJCAA Region VII title and a Tennessee Community College Athletic Association crown is the goal of every Walters State baseball team each season, this year’s team wants to return to national glory. The Senators were one win away from playing for a national championship in 2015, and this year’s group, including their head coach, wants to run the table this time around.
“The motivation should be there,” Shelton said. “I told them if they needed motivation this year after what the guys went through last year, then they need to go do something else. There shouldn’t be an issue with the hunger, and I know it’s a long season and sometimes staying motivated can be tough, but I haven’t seen any lack of motivation with these guys.”
“Sometimes the focus level goes down a little bit, but they are 18, 19, 20-year-old kids and that happens. There are some days that I need an extra cup of coffee to get me going in the morning. Every now and then, we need a little kick in the pants, but our job as coaches is to find a way to keep them motivated. It hasn’t been that hard this year. It’s a really good group, and they work hard.”
With that motivation, and the every year expectation of making a run at the JUCO World Series and a national championship, Shelton said anything short of realizing the goal of making it to Grand Junction in late May will be seen as a disappointment.
“I say it every year, and our expectations will never change here,” Shelton said. “It doesn’t mean we are always going to have the team to do it, but anything less than reaching the World Series here is a disappointment. That’s just the way it is and the way it always will be. If we ever get to the point where that is not our expectation, I’ll have issues with that. I want us to expect to go to the World Series, and on paper, we have the talent to make it there again this year.
“Now we have had other teams that were talented enough to make it to Grand Junction that didn’t, and we’ve had teams that probably weren’t good enough to make it that did make it. It’s just a matter of whether these guys can do it when the lights come on.”
Depth will be a key factor in making a deep postseason run, and the Senators appear to be as deep as they have ever been this season. Shelton sees no drop off from his starter to the No. 2 guy at each position, and there are several young arms ready to blend in with some talented sophomores to form a formidable pitching staff that had a huge fall season.
“You don’t ever want to be in a situation where one injury ruins your season,” Shelton said. “We’ve had some years where we felt like our starting nine could run out there, but we would be worried if anyone went down with an injury. And the same goes on the mound. You want to have depth in your pitching staff, especially this year with our conference tournament being even more important by having to win it to move on to play for a shot at the World Series.
“The conference tournament can eat up some pitching, so we hope we can develop our entire pitching staff to have them ready for the postseason. If you don’t have the whole staff developed, and you may have to win 4 or 5 games in five days, you won’t be successful. You can’t roll into that tournament with just 2 or 3 arms.”
The Senators lost four pitchers from last year’s staff to either the Major League Draft or to Southeastern Conference schools, but returners Hayden Lehman, a South Carolina signee, Peyton Alford and Reece Brewer, a Western Kentucky signee, combined for 132 innings last year to give WSCC some experienced arms. Blend in the additions of former TSSAA Mr. Baseball Gage Gillian, Brett Jones, who has missed the last two seasons with an arm injury, Landon Knack, former New York Mets 29th round draftee Alex Haynes, David Thigpen, Milligan College transfer Zach Akey, Trey Shepard, Channing Ratliff, Bubba Hubbard, Kendrick Malone and Indiana transfer Justin Reed, and there are plenty of options for Shelton and his staff to turn to.
“We have a lot of inexperience but also a lot of talent in our pitching staff, and I tell our kids every day that each day is an evaluation day,” Shelton said. “We’re still evaluating each time out. We had intersquads last weekend, and it was big because it helped us at least through this first weekend to kind of set our lineup and pitching rotation.
“We have told the kids there are no starters yet, no middle relievers, no closers. They’re all pitchers, especially this first weekend because everyone is on pitch counts. We’re going to keep their pitch counts down and not overuse anybody, so we need everybody to be ready to pitch when they are called upon.”
Depth at field positions is not in question either, and talented may be too general of a term to describe the players Shelton has at his disposal to put in the everyday lineup.
The Senators return starters at catcher (Hunter Gilliland), shortstop (Pirates 12th round pick Hunter Wolfe), second base (TCU signee Austin Henry and former Western Carolina transfer Trey Maslin), third base (former New York Mets 33rd round draftee Duncan Pence) and centerfield (North Carolina signee Dylan Harris). Behind them, there is another bevy of talent.
Gilliland, Georgia Southern transfer and South Carolina signee Luke Berryhill and JL Bland will handle the catching duties, while Knack, Kentucky transfer Alex Bibb and Carson-Newman transfer and former Jefferson County High School standout Malik Kyle will be in the first base platoon. Henry and Maslin will man second base, while Wolfe and Jordan Holly will be the guys at short. Pence, Drew Haynie and former Morristown West High School standout Jacob Jennings will man the hot corner at third.
In the outfield, Harris, a returning NJCAA All-American, and Xavier Arnette will be in center, while Tyler Gentry, an Alabama transfer, and returnee Brock Anderson, who is a former Washington signee, will be in right. In left, another Alabama transfer in Logan Carey, who has since signed with Memphis, will be the likely top guy while Kyle, Bibb or Berryhill could see action there as well.
“We have the ability to keep guys rested a little bit now,” Shelton said. “Say we’ve had a hard three-game weekend series, and some guys are starting to get tired. It’s part of our job as coaches to see that and figure out who may be wearing down a little bit and do we need to give them a break. We can do that with this group without having to worry about it too much. There just isn’t a big letdown.
“We’re not going to worry about whether we can compete with somebody on Tuesday or Wednesday by giving some of our guys a rest. I feel confident in every one of these guys on the roster. That’s a fun problem to have. Like this first weekend for example, I’ve kind of scripted out our lineups for those three games, and I don’t know if anyone will play more than two games as far as starting. We’re going to try to get everybody in and let them play a little bit and get their feet wet and see what they can do.”
While there is a lot of depth at every position, Shelton said that has made it fun to watch the team compete in practice as each player is still battling for their role on the squad. He said he tells his team every day it is both a blessing and a curse to play at Walters State due to eyes being on you all the time from college and professional scouts, but that has also made each player work that much harder to make themselves and the team the best each can possibly be.
“These guys are still competing for something,” Shelton said. “Not only do we want to compete to get back to the World Series in Grand Junction and win a national championship, but a lot of these kids have already signed with four-year schools but would also like a chance to get drafted. They’re still competing for that. There are still guys fighting to catch the eye of a college recruiter or a pro scout. There are always eyes on you, so you always have to be ready to perform.”
The Senators open the season this afternoon at 4 p.m. with a nine-inning contest at USC Salkehatchie to begin a three-game series that concludes on Saturday at noon with a doubleheader. WSCC will then play at Chipola next weekend before opening the home schedule on Wednesday, Feb. 7, at Ken Campbell Field against Tusculum.