Editor’s Note: This is part of a series highlighting the accomplishments of every area team’s senior class as their senior seasons were cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic. It will culminate in Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.’s Virtual Senior Night. For more information on that, visit www.thewetumpkaherald.com.
First-year coaches always know there are going to be some challenges that come with transitioning a program into a new system but fortunately for Stanhope Elmore baseball coach Kaleb Shuman, he had a large group of seniors to help push the rest of the program in the right direction.
“They were vital in the transition to help laying the foundation to change the culture of the program,” Shuman said. “They were the main element. No matter how good a young guy might be, they still look to the seniors on how to act. They always led by example and I’ll always be appreciative for them buying in.”
The Mustangs had seven seniors, several of whom had been with the program their entire high school careers. The wins did not come as often as they would have liked but for the ones that stuck with it, Shuman and some of the underclassmen want to make sure those seniors understand their impact on the program is not gone just because they are.
“They have been around the game long enough to know these kids coming up have a chance to be something special,” Shuman said. “I wanted to emphasize to them on a regular basis that they are the foundation. When they come back looking at this team years later, we want them to understand they were a part of setting the wheels in motion and turning this program around. It was always about more than just this year for them.”
Sully Stevens took on a major role during the transition, quickly becoming a leader. He voted a team captain by his teammates after the season was cut short.
“He was my workhorse,” Shuman said. “He did everything I ever asked and more. I never had to get on to him for anything. He did what he was supposed to do and he made sure everyone else did what they were supposed to do. That showed the level of consistency of his work.”
Stevens led the seniors in plate appearances this season and he was one of three to see consistent playing time. Nolan Taylor was the starting designated hitter while Caleb Rainwater caught most innings.
Taylor saw a drastic improvement with his bat despite coming off an injury to his arm. After getting just two plate appearances as a junior, Taylor led the Mustangs with 12 hits and 13 RBIs and finished his senior season with a .343 batting average.
“I felt confident when he came up against any pitcher to come up with a big-time hit,” Shuman said. “He was really a surprise because he hadn’t gotten to play a whole lot the previous years but he worked a lot to get better. He was a staple in the lineup and that’s credit to his work ethic and the way he does things.”
Rainwater made most of his impact in the field, catching 70 of the team’s 78 innings and he stopped eight stolen base attempts as a senior.
“I don’t think I could have asked for more from him,” Shuman said. “He competed every pitch of every inning. He took pride in little things like blocking the ball and keeping it off the backstop. He called a lot of the games for probably half the games and he did a great job of that.”
The rest of the senior class did not get as much playing time but they made the most of their chances. Khalil Wallace got only one plate appearance all season but it went about as well as anyone could have hoped.
“He hadn’t worked his way into the lineup but in his first at bat and only at bat, he hit a home run,” Shuman said. “He is such a hard worker and has come such a long way. The dugout erupted. You would have thought they just won a world series. You could see how much respect the team had for him and how happy they were for him to have that moment.”
Josh Wilson and Drache Denman each took some of the innings on the mound, mostly appearing in relief.
Wilson finished the year with the third most innings pitched, making eight appearances including one start. Denman did not pitch until his senior season but he contributed in three games, allowing just two hits and two earned runs.
Jeremy Thompson didn’t play baseball till this year but after seeing him on the football field, Shuman recruited Thompson. He provided more depth and some athleticism to the bench but Thompson’s impact went well beyond the field.
“I saw his leadership ability and the first thing you notice is the way people gravitate to him,” Shuman said. “It’s a gift that he has and he chooses to use that gift in a positive way. I told him I wanted him around these guys.”