George Walton Sports Stock Photo web card

MONROE — For the George Walton Academy baseball team and its fellow Region 8-A private school members, the number three pitcher could be the most important person on the team this spring.

That’s because a unique scheduling decision by league members will test the depth of every team’s rotation.

Before GHSA reclassification last year, Region 8-A was one of the largest in Class A. As a result, only one game against a league foe counted toward the region standings. However, reworking of the regions and the separation of private schools into their own division has resulted in much smaller leagues.

Region 8-A private now has only six teams. As a result, the league decided to schedule three games against each member team. What’s more, all will be three-game series over a single week.

That means each team will likely start three different pitchers each week or, at minimum, limit the number of innings their other starters throw.

“It’s definitely going to test everybody’s rotation,” said Bulldogs manager Todd Shelnutt.

Given the youth of his squad — he has just four seniors on the roster — Shelnutt will use the early non-region part of his schedule to determine his top pitchers in hopes of having them set when league play begins.

Like everybody else, GWA’s season was cut short last year because of the pandemic. When the season was called, the Bulldogs were struggling at 4-12 and were just getting ready to open league play.

The Bulldogs lost several key players to graduation, including four-year starter Koby Dunn, three-year starter Ben Howard, and three others who’d been in the program multiple years.

“The big difference for us this year is we don’t have a lot of experience to lean on,” Shelnutt said.

The outfield will be the strength of this year’s team. It will be staffed by a trio of returning seniors in Jake Whitten, Michael Dagenhart and Will Bailey.

Around the infield will be junior Nick Johnson at third, junior Jake Lance at shortstop, freshman Mason Mahan at second and sophomore Will Atkinson at first.

Shelnutt will platoon a couple players behind the plate in Dylan Shusterman and Cole Ratcliff. 

As for the rotation, Shelnutt expects to rely early on a trio of returners who compiled the most innings last spring. They include Lance, Atkinson, and Aidan Rainey.

However, because two of the three are starting infielders, he’d prefer to develop some others to limit the impact on his defense.

“I’m not big on change,” Shelnutt said. “I’d prefer to keep the defense set as much as possible.”

Given the small size of the region and the elimination of power rating, the Bulldogs appear to have a much simpler path to the state tournament. All they need to do is finish among the top four of six teams.

Winning the region and earning a top seed will be the biggest challenge.

“We’ve got a lot of young teams in the region this year,” Shelnutt said. “Whoever can win most of the three-game series probably has the best shot at winning everything.”

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