It normally takes more than 24 hours to reflect on something like the three-week run through the Class AA state baseball playoffs that Greater Atlanta Christian embarked on, let alone the lengthy coaching career of Cliff Shelton.
Yet, Shelton, whose 32-year coaching career at the school ended with Monday’s 7-2 loss to Benedictine in Game 3 of the state championship series in Savannah, admitted the process for both had begun even before the game was over.
“I’d been preparing myself for that the last month, knowing that every time I put on the uniform could be the last,” Shelton said Tuesday after his Spartans (22-14) finished as state runner-up. “When I went out to the (third-base) coach’s box for that last inning, I kind of stood there and looked around. There was a huge crowd there and I was just taking it all in for a minute (before the inning started).”
Yet, as disappointed as Shelton was to see his long career, which included 578 total wins and 14 region championships, end without a state title despite taking five different GAC teams to the state finals, he was more disappointed that the Spartans’ playoff run didn’t end with the ultimate reward.
What seemed improbable when they entered the playoffs as Region 6-AA’s No. 4 seed was on the brink of a title when the Spartans took a 2-1 lead into the fourth inning of Monday’s Game 3 before Benedictine rallied to tie the game, and then win it with a five-run rally in the sixth.
“Really, there were a lot of cards stacked against us,” Shelton said. “We spent three days in Savannah and three hours sitting on the bus (Monday) not knowing if we were going to play (due to inclement weather). But that’s been typical of the way this whole run has been. … For them to have dealt with it like they did, I can’t be any prouder of the kids. If you look on paper, we had no business beating any of the teams we did (in the four previous rounds). … To take it to the final game and the late innings of that game, I’m proud of them.
“It is what it is. I had one last shot (at winning a state title), and that’s all you can ask for. Am I bitter? No. I’ve come to look at wins and losses in a little different light. I don’t have any regrets. … It wasn’t meant to be.”
It seemed like it was meant to be after the Spartans saved its best baseball for the playoffs.
Whether it was big-time pitching performances like Justin Lewis’ Game 1 starts in each series or clutch Game 3 starts from the likes of Peyton McGuire in the quarterfinals against Berrien or Ben Childers in the semifinals against Westminster, well-timed hits like Wade Cox’s two-run home run that proved to be the difference in Game 1 of the title series and Jackson O’Brien’s game-winning double in Game 3 of the semis or defensive plays like outfield assists by Cox and McGuire, the Spartans seemed to find a way to make the needed play.
And moments like those are what Shelton says will make it most difficult to step away.
“There’s a lot I won’t miss (about coaching), but certainly the players and (the rest of the coaching staff) I will miss,” Shelton said. “And I’ve always looked at baseball as my ministry, so I’m going to miss that. … In some ways, (32 years) seems like an eternity. In other ways, it seems like only yesterday.”