High School Baseball
Change, opportunities for Cougars under new head coach
by Chris Goltermann
Opportunity seems to be a word most fitting the Newnan High baseball program this spring. From the dugout to the diamond, changes are afoot for the Cougars, who open the season today with a scrimmage at home against Whitewater at 2 p.m.
Success, however, hopes to remain a constant following a 23-7 season and a trip to the Class AAAAAA Sweet 16.
As much as Joe Pope Field has gone through its share of changes the past two years with its recent renovations helping earn Class AAAAAA Field of the Year honors from the Georgia Dugout Club, so have the faces in navy and white uniforms in 2014.
Former assistant Marc Gilmore’s promotion to head coach, though, isn’t the only transition facing the program. Nearly the entire lineup will be revamped after losing 15 seniors to graduation including 2013 Newnan Times-Herald Most Valuable Player Brandon Dawson and five other All-County standouts from last spring.
“They’re still trying to feel me out,” said Gilmore, who spent the last nine seasons working under former head coach Kenny Morris, a winner of 469 varsity games. “They see that my role has changed and that there are going to be things I do different.”
Some of them have been immediate.
The Cougars most recently hosted an inaugural alumni game and home-run derby fundraiser that featured 45 former players and ended in a 10-10 tie among an estimated 200 in attendance.
Still, Gilmore might not have picked a better year for getting a chance to put his stamp on the program when it comes to potentially rocking the boat — especially since there are so many vacant seats off last year’s ship.
Only seven of 20 players on this year’s roster saw varsity action a year ago, and of those, only one — senior catcher Conner Dunn — had more than 33 at bats.
Gilmore will also have to wait for one of the returning veterans, senior third-baseman and pitcher Jake Kneidel, to wrap up basketball season before turning his attention to the diamond. In spot duty over 21 games, he batted .242 with four RBIs but while also an effective arm while going 3-0 with a 2.26 ERA in 21 ? innings pitched.
While the loss of Newnan’s top pitchers, Dawson and Thomas Sumner, who were on the mound for approximately 61-percent of 200 innings played last year is distressing, the Cougars may be primed for an immediate reload.
Along with Kneidel, a 6-0 righthander, Newnan returns 6-2, 170-pound senior lefty Tanner Snellgrove. In mostly relief duties and spot starts, the two combined for a 6-1 record and ERAs just over two runs a game.
“We feel good about both of those guys. But we’re going to need others to step up behind them,” said Gilmore. “This year I’m just excited to see what some of these guys can do this year.”
Sophomore right-hander Sawyer Steele, whose among 10 pitchers listed on the 2014 roster, could be primed for a breakthrough first year on the varsity.
Despite losing the entire starting outfield, senior Justin Groover, who batted .300 in 20 at-bats last year, and junior Tyler Davis, a JV standout last year, also seemed poised to step into bigger roles on the varsity.
“There are a lot of guys from the JV last year who we feel can step into one of those [vacant] positions,” Gilmore said. “Outside of Conner, we don’t really have a starting position player returning. So there’s a lot of opportunity for these guys.”
Dunn, a senior, had 54 at bats last season while alternating with Sam Buchanan behind the plate for double-headers.
In addition to five seniors, a larger group of 11 juniors have a chance to cement themselves in starting roles for the next two seasons.
Regardless of all the changes, recent weather this winter has been the greatest hindrance to making early progress heading into today’s scrimmage.
“We just can’t seem to get into a routine,” said Gilmore, who delayed tryouts for three days due to school cancellations during the first of two recent storms. “We’ll get out there for a couple of days and then have another stretch. We really haven’t done much hitting in the cages.”