Spartans hope wild playoff ride lasts one more mile

NORCROSS — Greater Atlanta Christian has dealt with the unknown throughout their run through the Class AA state baseball playoffs.

So, the fact the Spartans (21-13) know precious little about Benedictine as they head out on the road towards Savannah to meet the Cadets (29-6) in the state championship series, which begins with Saturday’s 1:30 p.m. doubleheader, doesn’t faze them.

“Wesleyan and Lovett (coaching staffs) both contacted me (Wednesday) wanting to know if I wanted any (scouting report or film) before I even had a chance to talk to them,” GAC coach Cliff Shelton said with a laugh before Wednesday’s practice. “Today, I had final exams I had to give this morning. We had (the memorial service for GAC founding president Jesse Long on Wednesday) afternoon. So, I’ve not had a chance to even email or text them. So, I’ve got to get that done pretty quick.”

Despite what has been whirlwind few days since the Spartans downed Region 6-AA foe Westminster in Game 3 of the semifinals, as well as a short turnaround to travel more that 260 miles to Savannah for the series, Shelton says he and the Spartans are quite confident.

“In baseball, all I want to know is general things like do they play small ball, what kind of arm has the catcher got, do they have speed. Those are things I want to know,” Shelton said. “I just want to know tendencies. It’s not like (other sports where you ask) what kind of offense do they run? We have to form a defense for that.

“I just want to know, ‘How do they approach the game?’”

Shelton says he doesn’t want that approach to be misinterpreted to look like he and the Spartans are taking a cavalier attitude toward the finals, or that he doesn’t respect Benedictine.

Indeed, the Cadets bring a formidable squad to the series that includes a tough starting rotation of Stevie Powers (6-1, 1.43 ERA, 64 K, 44 IP), Chipper Wiley (7-1, 0.86 ERA, 54 K, 40 2/3 IP) and Al Pesto (5-2, 1.58 ERA, 53 K, 35 1/3 IP), plus powerful like Brad Stewart (.377, 2 HR, 23 RBIs), Chase Marini (.347, 1 HR, 24 RBIs) and Ben Wright (.338, 20 RBIs).

It’s just that he has that much faith in his own team, especially given the way it has stepped up its game in the postseason.

The Spartans have raised their team batting average by some 40 points from the regular season behind clutch hitting from the likes of Harry Kerr (.346, 17 RBIs), Jackson O’Brien (.338, 1 HR, 13 RBIs) and Devin Daugherty (.326, 2 HR, 27 RBIs).

They’ve turned in well-timed defensive plays like numbers double plays or outfield assists turned in by Wade Cox and Peyton McGuire in Game 3 against Westminster on Tuesday.

They’ve also gotten steady pitching from ace Justin Lewis, as well as clutch Game 3 performances from McGuire (3-3, 3.73 ERA, 30 K, 30 IP) and Ben Childers (4-1, 6 saves, 1.55 ERA, 21 K, 31 2/3 IP) in consecutive series.

Add it all up, and Shelton says it’s the mark of a team putting it all together at the right time.

“We’re hitting the ball well, … we’re playing good defense and pitching well enough to win,” Shelton said.

It has also added up to a special run for GAC’s group of seniors, which not only wants to send themselves out as state champions, but also Shelton, who will step down after 32 years as coach following the series.

“We’re playing for coach,” said Lewis, one of the team’s seniors. “We say each game, WFC, ‘Win for Cliff.’ I think it’s had a lot to do with bringing (the team) closer together. When coach told us he wasn’t going to be coaching next year, we really stuck together and said, ‘We’re going to play the rest of the season for him, … and leave it all on the line.’”

Likewise, Shelton, who will bring his fifth Spartans team to a championship series, says he wants to win more for his players, and specifically his seniors, than to give himself his first state title in his final season.

“I’ve always been at peace with the fact that I may never win a state championship,” Shelton said. “That’s never defined me as a coach. Would it be nice? You bet.

“They don’t talk about it, but I can tell in their actions a lot of times that it’s on their minds. They’re thinking about it. Because after that win at Westminster (in Game 3 Tuesday), every one of the seniors sought me out to hug me. That kind of communicates to me that it’s special to them in a way that may be different from other senior classes.”