High School Baseball
Similarities between Cougars, Valdosta mark opener
by Chris Goltermann
On paper, at least, a best-of-three series between Newnan and Valdosta in the first round of the GHSA Class AAAAAA baseball playoffs is as much a showcase of younger, scrappy lineups with mirror images.
But only one will be able to survive through this weekend.
“Like most playoff series, it’s going to come down to who can start off fast,” Newnan head coach Marc Gilmore said. “They’re a lot like we are.”
The two teams begin the postseason today with a 4 p.m. doubleheader at Joe Pope Field. Game 3, if necessary, would be played at 12 p.m., on Saturday.
Both lineups are junior-heavy while reloading in 2014. Newnan returned this spring with all but one starter lost to graduation. The turnover, along with Gilmore’s promotion to head coach, resulted in a roller-coaster March before reeling off six straight Region 3-AAAAAA victories over the final week of the regular season to clinch second place and home-field advantage for the opening round.
The Cougars (14-10) started the season with a 3-8 record before winning 11 of their final 13 games of the regular season. Both losses were to 3-AAAAAA champion East Coweta including a 10-6 decision in eight innings.
“It took us a while to figure each other out,” Gilmore admitted. “It took a lot of them to adjust to the speed of the game at the varsity level. And it took a while for me to adjust to being a head coach. Our coaches did a good job of giving feedback as we tried to give everyone a chance. I feel like we’re peaking at the right time.”
It’s the first meeting in the state baseball playoffs between the two programs since 2010 when host Valdosta squeaked out a 2-1 series victory “against one of our best teams,” said Gilmore in the first round en route to reaching the state quarterfinals.
Longtime head coach Bart Shuman’s lineup ended up losing to eventual state champion Harrison to close that season, and the program has missed the playoffs each of the last three years before turning things around in 2014 despite having only one senior on the roster.
The Wildcats’ lone upperclassmen, senior first baseman Daniel Tefft, has done his part, however this spring on a team that includes nine juniors, three sophomores and three freshmen. The majority are returners while making a turnaround from last year’s 5-12-1 campaign.
Tefft, a Mercer University signee, entered this week batting .420 with four homers and 27 RBIs as Valdosta closed the regular season with wins in six of its last eight games including a 3-2 victory over eventual Region 1-AAAAAA champion Coffee.
Coffee (17-9), Tift County (21-4) and Valdosta (17-7) all closed the season with at least three consecutive wins.
“They’re extremely well coached. Bart’s done a great job for years down there,” Gilmore said.
Valdosta is expected to turn to junior Austin Lieupo and sophomore Seth Shuman on the mound, while Newnan has used senior lefty Tanner Snellgrove and sophomore Sawyer Steele as its No. 1 and No. 2 starters through the majority of the 3-AAAAAA schedule. Heys Rowan is equally capable of coming on early should one of the duo struggle early.
The Cougars, though, have turned things around since a 5-3 loss to Westlake in its region opener on March 19. By the time the two came around to playing again following multipe rainouts, Newnan seemed to have gotten over its early doldrums.
“Westlake’s coach said after we played them again that we were a completely different team,” said Gilmore, whose team took East Coweta to extra innings a day after being blown out 8-1 by the Indians. “We showed a lot of fight and I think that gave us some confidence.”