By Gabriel Stovall
FAYETTEVILLE, Ga. — When you walk onto the plush and expansive grounds that house the Whitewater baseball complex, it’s not hard to picture a state championship contender playing there.
From the flawlessly manicured field to the Wildcats’ indoor workout facility, Whitewater has the look of a program that can compete with not only the best baseball programs in the state, but also the nation.
And so far this season, coach Russell Bennett’s team is showing that it isn’t all window dressing.
Whitewater (8-1) is a one-run win away from being undefeated in the 2015 season — an impressive feat, considering the early-season resume the 2014 Class AAAA runners up have put together.
That one loss? a 1-0 pitcher’s dual defeat against No. 2 Buford. But the Wildcats are still considered the top-ranked team in the state because of how they responded to the Buford setback.
A 2-1 win over Farragut (Tenn.) — the nation’s 19th-ranked team — the following Friday.
“That was a fun game,” said Whitewater senior pitcher Ethan Gillis. “It was a Friday night, great atmosphere, and especially coming off that loss to Buford. It was great to come out and beat one of the top teams in the nation. It was a really good game.”
And it was a game that did more than put another “W” in the win column for Whitewater. It was a game that senior slugger Brandon Bell said should’ve put his squad on the map.
“A lot of people don’t give us respect in those national polls,” Bell said. “I think it’s because we’ve always been in the Final Fours and gotten close, but we’ve never brought a championship back. But I think after beating one of the top 20 ranked teams in the nation, I think we’re starting to get some respect now.”
One group of Wildcats that shouldn’t have to struggle to get props is the pitching staff, headlined by Gillis and Georgia Tech signee Jake Lee. That unit — Gillis calls them his “POs” — has tossed five shutouts and has only surrendered four runs all season.
The unit’s been so dominant that even Bell, a power hitter batting close to .450 so far this season, couldn’t help but heap praise on his hurlers.
“I think we’ve been playing good, and I think it’s our pitching staff that’s really been holding us up and keeping us together,” Bell said. “They can keep us close in every game while our hitting is coming around.”
Gillis attributed part of the pitching production to something bigger than mere mechanics. A lot of it, he said, is all about the team’s chemistry.
“We just have a lot of fun out there, man,” Gillis said. “We sit down there in the bullpen and talk. We just have a lot of fun.”
It’s been fun so far for the coach, also. Whitewater completed a sweep of its first Region 5-AAAA series, defeating Sandy Creek by scores of 10-0 and 6-0 this past week. That first win against Sandy Creek gave Bennett his 100th career win as a coach.
“Always as a coach, it’s a cool milestone to get to,” Bennett said. “But still, it’s also just a small milestone. The guys asked me how does it feel, and I told them, you know, I don’t really think about it much. The one that matters to me is winning that last game of the season. When it’s all said and done, that’s the main feeling of accomplishment we want to have.”
Of course that last game of the season is the one that Whitewater came short of last year, losing to Houston County in the best-two-of-three series that decided the state championship.
And both Gillis and Bell will tell you that the loss still sticks in Whitewater’s craw.
“Without a doubt, I think we all still think about that loss,” Gillis said. “I think the worst thing is going out around town and hearing people remind you, saying, ‘Oh man, you guys made it to state and came within three outs,’ and all that sort of stuff. I think it’s defeintely helped us play as a team early on this year. But we’re also starting to have some fun out there.”
Said Bell: “We’ve actually had that bad taste in our mouths the past few years. But I think it always makes us stronger, and makes us want to come back that much harder and work to take that taste out of our mouths.”
That pallet cleansing could begin in earnest this Wednesday with Whitewater’s participation in the USABaseball.com’s National High School Invitational Tournament in Cary, NC where 16 of the best high school squads in the nation will compete.
It’s another chance, Bell says, for Whitewater to build more national respect and state championship momentum.
“I think Cary is huge for us,” Bell said. “It’s huge for us to have been invited. It’s an honor, really, and to go far and win a few games in the tournament would be great. It would go a long way in bringing a lot of respect back to us.”
“It should be a really fun tournament, and we’re all really looking forward to it,” he said. “I think we get DeSoto first out of Mississippi. We’re looking forward to getting out there and proving ourselves and just playing some baseball.”