Pitching coach Joey Seaver started filling Ken Campbell’s cleats, but Dave Shelton will be the closer.
Seaver was picked to succeed Campbell at Walters State last summer after Campbell concluded his Hall of Fame career. However, it was announced this week that Seaver is taking a job as pitching coach with the Texas Rangers organization, and Shelton, who spent a decade on Campbell’s staff with Seaver, has been named the Senators’ head coach some three weeks prior the Feb. 1 season opener.
The Senators were a national power under Campbell, who took over before the 2000 season after 10 years as ETSU’s head coach. Shelton began his coaching career working with Campbell one year at ETSU and then spent four seasons with Campbell’s successor, Tony Skole. He’s been reunited with Campbell the past 10 seasons in Morristown.
Shelton has no shortage of influences. He played for Charlie Baxter at Unicoi County (class of ’94) and Doug Jennett was his coach at Milligan College. Detroit Tigers assistant Ed Hodge was on Jennett’s staff during Shelton’s first three seasons, and Elizabethton Twins manager Ray Smith followed Hodge.
“Hopefully, I can pile it altogether – all of the knowledge I’ve gained over the years – and figure out how to keep this program successful like it has been,” Shelton said Saturday. “I feel like I had a pretty decent influence on the program as an assistant, so I don’t think it’s gonna be too much of a culture shock to the kids.”
The 37-year-old Shelton hopes Seaver will be able to maintain an arrangement with Walters State somewhat similar to the one Smith has with the Twins and Milligan. Seaver will be working under former Milligan head coach Danny Clark with the Rangers organization, which includes another pitching coach with area ties, former ETSU pitcher Jeff Andrews.
Shelton’s inaugural campaign could include contributions from three former Science Hill pitchers, although Will Carter, Reed Hayes and Matt Pope each will have to deliver through uncertainty.
Carter is a year removed from Tommy John Surgery. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound redshirt sophomore is expected to begin pitching, perhaps several weeks into the season.
“I do not want his first outing of the year to be the second weekend of the year down at Chipola, where there are 70-some scouts there to watch us,” Shelton said. “Those scouts will be coming around the rest of the year. I want to make sure he’s ready to look good in front of them before he just gets thrown out there.”
Hayes, a three-sport standout at Science Hill, could see time in the outfield and on the mound as a freshman this season.
“We’re planning on him being a two-way guy,” Shelton said. “In the fall, Reed probably progressed more as a position player than he did as a pitcher, which is kind of backward from which way I thought it would go. And I still think there’s a tremendously bright future for him on the mound. I just think his arm works too good and he’s got a lot of potential.”
Hayes’ impressive versatility constantly seems to somehow work against him.
“We’re still gonna be working through the same issues he’s always had, you know, finding time to do both,” Shelton said. “At least now we’re not battling with football and basketball.”
Some would like to see Hayes juggle sports again down the road. Shelton chuckled hearing there are those that’d like to see Hayes play football at ETSU, because football came so easily while he led the Hilltoppers to a 9-2 record during his lone season as a varsity quarterback. Hayes could have gone to Furman for football.
“That could be an option,” Shelton said, “but boy, he’s a good enough athlete to where he’s got a future at both.”
Shelton said he has four Division I prospects in the outfield, and three are a year older than Hayes.
“By the end of the fall he was starting in our outfield,” Shelton said. “We’re factoring him in, but him being a freshman, he’s just got to be prepared to get out there and earn it. As deep as we are out there you’ve got to produce when you get your opportunity and be ready to go.”
The Science Hill wild card is 6-foot-7, 235-pound right-hander Matt Pope. He pitched sparingly for the Hilltoppers as well as last season as a freshman at Kentucky, but the unpolished power pitcher who was drafted out of high school continues to draw scouts’ interest.
“He’s the one everybody calls about: ‘We’ve got to see Pope,’” Shelton said. “They want to know when he’s pitching. They’re wanting to come in and watch him throw bullpen.”
Pope threw consistently in the low 90s this past fall despite a sore forearm. He’d thrown harder than that previously.
“He’ll show you flashes,” Shelton said. “He needs to pitch in the worst way … just to learn how to pitch, because I mean, there’s a big-league arm in there. … He was 91 to 94 with a tender arm, and it’s easy. As a scout, you look at him and you’re like, ‘This kid may throw a hundred (mph) when it’s all said and done.’ It would be no shock whatsoever if he’s 97-98 by the end of our season. … He’s been throwing over the break and says his arm feels great, 100 percent ready to go.”
Another Science Hill product who has impressed is infielder Kyle Wilson. Shelton was still recruiting a shortstop for the 2014 season – when current shortstop Elijah Sutherland transfers to North Carolina – until Wilson’s productive fall season.
“Kyle Wilson was the biggest surprise on our team,” Shelton said. “When he got to campus this fall it basically changed my recruiting thought process.”
It might sound odd, but Shelton likes Wilson so much that he’s more inclined to redshirt him this season.
“There is zero doubt in my mind that down the line Kyle Wilson can be a tremendous college shortstop and he will be our shortstop,” Shelton said. “It’s just he happens to be here when we have the two best middle infielders we’ve ever had in Elijah Sutherland and Jake Farr.”
Indeed, Shelton expects the talented Senators to maintain the standard he helped Campbell and Seaver set while being the recruiting coordinator/hitting coach the past 10 seasons.
“We’ve got 10 Division I transfers on our roster and six of them are from the SEC,” he said, “and that’s not including guys like Elijah Sutherland, who’s signed with UNC and Reed Hayes, who had committed to Tennessee. As far as talent, I think we have a chance to be pretty good.”
It’s been an eventful run for Shelton. His wife, Stefanie, coached the ETSU women’s golf program to new heights last season, and their second child, a daughter, is due in March. Shelton has a son, Dalton, who’ll turn three on Jan. 24.
“Our poor son has no chance,” he said with a chuckle. “All we do is try to coach him.”
But it looks like Walters State baseball has a chance to keep on thriving by keeping it in the family.