High School Baseball
Cougars enjoy chance to finally take field
by Chris Goltermann
The last two weeks leading up to the start of the 2014 high school baseball season have been anything but typical. And Saturday’s scrimmage between Newnan and Whitewater at Joe Pope Field took an equally unorthodox format with bases suddenly going from empty to full, and extra umpires rotating in and out as well during their own trial run.
But unlike the winter weather that has limited teams to the utter basics in practice, a change of pace was a good thing on Saturday.
The score — for those who put merit into practice games — had the Wildcats using a five-run outburst between the third and fourth innings to pull out an 8-6 ‘victory’ over the host Cougars, who will open the season for real on Wednesday against Troup County in a 5:30 p.m. game also scheduled at home.
But in his first outing since being promoted to Newnan’s head baseball coach, Marc Gilmore felt his players took advantage of Saturday’s opportunity to take the field for the first time, with most experiencing their varsity debuts.
“I’m very excited. I couldn’t stop shaking before the game because of it,” said Gilmore, who had family making the trip from Florida just to see his varsity head coaching debut. “I think our players were excited too. Some of them have been waiting four years for this. But I thought we did a lot of good things today.”
Instead of playing the scrimmage under game conditions, Gilmore and Whitewater head coach Rusty Bennett agreed that teams could get a better experience by alternating regular play with game-type situations.
Teams played the first and fifth innings as any other game, but opted to change things up during the other five. Regardless of the situation, leadoff hitters remained on first to give both defenses a chance for added work.
Despite losing more than a dozen seniors from last year’s team, Newnan didn’t look lost at the plate, connecting throughout against the first live pitching it had seen since tryouts two weeks ago.
“Considering all the weather we’ve had, I was pleased with how we swung the bats,” Gilmore said.
After losing eight regulars and its top-two pitchers from a 23-7 lineup a year ago, Newnan’s lineup on Saturday was unrecognizable from the one in 2013 outside of Groover, senior catcher Connor Dunn and left-handed pitcher Tanner Snellgrove, all of which played mostly as reserves.
“I thought our five seniors did a good job. Justin Groover had some hits, Walker Sandlin played good defense and Drew Oldham battled at the plate.”
The latter trio combined for just 25 varsity at bats last season.
The Cougars used more than a handful of available pitchers and senior Jake Kneidel — preparing for Saturday night’s Region 3-AAAAAA basketball tournament game — was the only roster player not to make a plate appearance.
Four other seniors put their best foot forward in season debuts including Snellgrove, a left-hander who seemed comfortable in getting the ball first and firing a scoreless opening inning. He was 3-1 over nine games last year while posting a 2.07 ERA.
“He’s in line to be our No. 1. We have Jake too, but we’re hoping not to use him as much to keep him in the field,” Gilmore said.
The newcomers equally held their own. Despite having a couple balls get lost in the early afternoon sun among shadows draped by Drake Stadium, three new starting outfielders came up with some big plays led by Brady Barnes’ diving grab toward the right-field line in the seventh inning.
After giving up a run when the bases were purposefully loaded, Cougar junior right-hander Matt Thomley ended the seventh with a strikeout. Junior Heys Rowan pitched the sixth for Newnan, which rallied for three runs in the bottom of the fourth after trailing 6-1.
Sophomore right-hander Sawyer Steele, who has impressed coaches in the preseason, was also among Cougars to get their first varsity work on the mound on Saturday.
“I was proud of the way we competed,” said Gilmore. “Coach Bennett does a great job and that’s a competitive program. They want to win too. I thought we had a lot of guys today that are really trying to make us make some tough decisions.”
Northgate also opened its season with a scrimmage at Troup on Saturday. Results were unavailable at deadline.
The two teams will open the season Monday at noon.
East Coweta also plays its preseason scrimmage on Monday against McIntosh. The Indians and Northgate play Wednesday at noon prior to Newnan’s 5:30 p.m. opener against Troup.