Shelton picked up where Campbell left off, piling up victories en route to lofty national rankings. However, a season-ending concussion suffered by shortstop Elijah Sutherland, a Dobyns-Bennett alum bound for North Carolina, cost Shelton his catalyst on March 31.
“Any team you’re in junior college and you lose an ACC-caliber middle infielder, it’s gonna be a big blow,” said Shelton, who played at Unicoi County and Milligan College. “He was our best offensive player. We weren’t quite the same team without him.”
Sutherland and center fielder Michael Smith collided while diving for a ball. It looked like Smith had taken the worst of it, as blood flowed from his mouth and nose. But Sutherland’s symptoms, Shelton says, never subsided after a collision more common to a football field.
“Elijah turned a flip,” Shelton said. “It kind of looked like one of those NFL guys going into the end zone that looks like a helicopter going through the air.”
The Senators were 28-10 with Sutherland and 15-8 without him, including a season-ending loss to Motlow State which concluded on a walk-off two-run home run that capped a four-run ninth and, Shelton says, a 12-pitch at-bat.
“Most people would look at a 43-win season as really good,” Shelton said. “And honestly, I haven’t slept a whole lot since our season ended. … We ran in to a hot team in the tournament and we were one pitch from beating them.”
Former Science Hill three-sport star Reed Hayes had a solid freshman season playing right field for the Senators.
“Reed was the only freshman starter in our lineup,” Shelton said. “He ended up hitting .362 … and he had 15 stolen bases and was really good defensively. He stood out. He’s already going to be on some people’s radars. …
“I thought he’d end up pitching a little more, but it’s such a tough gig to do both in college. I think when he tries to pitch and play a position it wears on his arm quite a bit, and I think he’s happy trying to settle in as a position player. … He’s athletic enough to be a center fielder. I may move him. He’s got such a good arm that right field is a really good fit.”
Former Science Hill pitchers Matt Pope and Will Carter pitched sparingly for Walters State, but Shelton said both of the right-handed power pitchers could get drafted in next week’s Major League Baseball draft. Pope was drafted out of high school by Pittsburgh (2012) and played in 2013 at Kentucky.
Shelton said Pope began to “pound the strike zone” late in the season and was throwing as hard as 94 mph. The velocity of Carter, who was coming off Tommy John surgery this season, jumped considerably since pitching at Milligan College on April 21.
“You’ve gotta be careful bringing a kid back from Tommy John, and we were in a pretty good situation on the mound,” Shelton said. “I didn’t have to push the issue with Will. We just ran him out a little bit a week at a time and let him try to build up.”
Carter, who had thrown in the low 90s prior to his elbow injury, threw 85-87 mph consistently until the Milligan appearance.
“We were playing … at their place under the lights,” Shelton said. “We brought Will in for an inning or two and I said to our assistant, ‘Man, it looks like everybody throws harder under the lights, doesn’t it.’ … And then I saw – there were a couple of scouts there to see a couple of our other guys – and I saw them pulling out their video cameras and videoing Will. And that’s always a telltale sign. … Jerry Jordan, a scout with the Pirates, walked over to the dugout and said, ‘Will’s 92 to 94 every pitch.’ I was like, ‘Holy cow.’”
Carter started the following week at Spartanburg Methodist, and threw consistently 92-93. He has since received an aggressive offer from Alabama, and Shelton said he’s thrown 94 and 95 mph, respectively, in ensuing workouts for pro scouts.
“I will be amazed if he’s not drafted,” Shelton said. “I really hoped, come April, he would be at full strength. And he was. It just so happened that we got upset in our tournament, and he didn’t get a chance to move on deeper into the postseason and show what he could do.”
Another Science Hill product, freshman middle infielder Kyle Wilson, redshirted this season at Walters State. Shelton said he gave Wilson an option of playing when Sutherland went down, but hated to burn his redshirt at that point in the season.
“He’s the odds-on favorite to be our starting shortstop next year,” Shelton said.
Walters State has landed four area signees: Science Hill’s Kyle Ouellette; D-B’s Payton Marshall; and Unicoi County’s Ethan Rice and Austin Green.
Shelton likes the speed and versatility of Rice, the upper-80s velocity and hard slider of Green and the way balls jump off the bats of Ouellette and Marshall.
“I feel like they impacted the ball differently than everyone else that you go to watch,” Shelton said. “Ninety-mile-an-hour arms are all over the place now … but finding kids that are physical and can impact the baseball with these new bats, I mean, it’s hard. These bats have completely changed hitting in high school and college. …
“The big thing I like about Ouellette – I feel like he’s a winner. I like how hard he plays. Everything that coach (Ryan) Edwards has told me has been nothing but positive, and his work ethic is great. And those are the kind of guys that succeed at the next level.”
The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Ouellette lost some 20 pounds between his junior and senior seasons, and Shelton said he could even see him potentially moving from first base to left field.
“And what if he throws on another 10-15 pounds of muscle,” Shelton said. “He’s got a chance to be a really physical offensive force in college. … (Marshall) is probably one of the guys that nobody on the other team likes. But you want guys that are some competitive that the other teams hate playing against him.”
Another D-B alum, right-handed pitcher Aaron Quillen, committed to Belmont this week. He went 7-1 with the Senators, and probably would’ve won more if his former Indians teammate hadn’t gone down.
“Our kids battled and we won some big games,” Shelton said. “But I think if we would’ve been able to keep Sutherland healthy we might’ve had a pretty special season on our hands.”
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