MORRISTOWN, Tenn. — A perennial national power faces a regional upstart this week at Ken Campbell Field at Walters State Community College with a berth in the Alpine Bank JUCO World Series on the line.
Fourth-ranked Walters State, the Tennessee Community College Athletic Association and NJCAA Region VII champion, will look to continue its mastery of the NJCAA East Central District when the Senators host third-ranked Gordon State, the Georgia Collegiate Athletic Association and NJCAA Region XVII champion, for a best-of-three series beginning on Wednesday. The games are scheduled for 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, if needed.
The Senators (50-9) will be playing for back-to-back trips to the JUCO World Series, which would be just the second time in program history WSCC has made consecutive trips to Grand Junction. The last time was 2005-06, with the 2006 season culminating with a national championship. The Senators were national runners-up last season.
A win in the series would also clinch the ninth JUCO World Series berth for Walters State and third under sixth-year head coach Dave Shelton. It would also be the eighth trip to the Rocky Mountains in the last 17 seasons for the Senators.
Shelton has led Walters State back to within a series victory of another trip to Colorado despite losing 18 players from last year's team that signed with NCAA programs. The Senators had just two players in the lineup with more than a handful of games experience from last season and just two pitchers who had seen considerable time a year ago on the mound.
"It's a whole new crew, and I said before the season started that when you have so many new guys, you don't know what to expect," Shelton said. "But these guys have stayed hungry. I knew we were going to be talented. It was just a matter of how quickly we could get them experienced and get them in the fire. We had a lot of guys without any college experience, and we even had some transfers that came in without any college experience.
"All those guys, you have to get them out there and get them experience and get them prepared, and they have done a great job. Even more so than usual, it's been a team effort. We've got guys that come off the bench and do their job. We have relievers that may not pitch for two weeks, and they come in and get the job done. You've got to have that, and it gives you the depth to make runs in the postseason."
The Highlanders (50-7) come into this weekend riding a 25-game winning streak and looking for just their second ever trip to the World Series. Travis McClanahan has been the head coach at Gordon State for 16 seasons, winning 30-plus games 10 times, including five 40-plus win campaigns, which also includes this year's school record 50 wins. He led the Highlanders to the World Series in 2012, finishing third in the tournament. He began his coaching career at Hiwassee College in Madisonville, where he coaches against Walters State in the TCCAA.
Both teams come into this week after sweeping through their respective region tournaments. Walters State won four games in Columbia, taking down Volunteer State (9-2), Chattanooga State (17-9) and Jackson State twice (7-2 and 4-1) to win the championship.
"I was proud of our guys going out and executing the little things we have talked about all year long," Shelton said. "Our bunting was phenomenal in the region tournament. We've worked on it a lot and tried it a lot, and early on we were really bad at it. Now we have gotten to the point where third basemen can't stay back in the outfield grass on us anymore and catch our line drives. They have to come inland respect us a little bit, and that makes it tough defensively when you are versatile. Our guys have done a really good job, and hopefully that continues this week."
The Highlanders won their opening game in Albany in extra innings, taking down South Georgia State, 4-3. Gordon State won the winner's bracket final 12-3 over East Georgia State before taking down South Georgia State again in the championship game, 18-11.
Each game will be broadcast online by Jock Jive Sports at www.jockjive.com/wslive.html, with Chuck Sebastian providing the play-by-play.