Tunstall baseball coach Barry Shelton sits atop his captain’s perch in the Trojans’ dugout before one of his squad’s practices a few weeks ago.
He stares out onto Jack Bryant Field for a moment before offering his introspection on Tunstall’s season. One that’s gone a bit differently than Shelton might’ve expected heading into the year.
Last Friday, the Trojans traveled to Halifax County where they took on the Comets in the Piedmont District Tournament championship game. Tunstall already had played Halifax twice during the regular season, both Trojans’ losses, so Shelton’s squad took it upon themselves to prove it’s hard to beat a team three times in one season.
Tunstall jumped on top of Halifax for five runs in the top of the third inning to break open a 1-0 game and claim a six-run advantage. The Trojans tacked on three more runs in the fifth and never looked back, scoring a 9-4 win over the Comets and winning the tournament title.
It put the icing on a regular season that saw Tunstall post a record of 17-4, including a 10-4 mark in the district. It was also the culmination of a three-game run through the district tournament that featured the Trojans blowing by their three opponents by eight runs per game.
Not bad for a team that started six first-year varsity players in each tournament game.
“I’m very proud of this group for what they’ve done up to this point,” Shelton said. “It’s always questionable how things are going to go when you have to plug in so many players that haven’t started at the varsity level before, but they’ve stepped up, made adjustments, and I’m proud of them.”
Wet behind the ears
After Tunstall’s home opener against Gretna in mid-March, Shelton expressed concern his squad wouldn’t be able to live up to the lofty expectations set of Tunstall baseball each season.
It wasn’t Shelton didn’t believe in his guys, he knew the Trojans were going to have some big shoes to fill and a small cast to fill them.
Gone from last year’s squad were Region 3D first-team selections Will Davis, Cameron Rigney and Grayson Elliott along with second-team picks Reese McQuaid and Tyler Jarrett. Complicating matters, Tunstall only returned four players from last year’s side that made an appearance in the Region 3D semifinals.
While the Trojans didn’t exactly feature a roster full of seasoned, they weren’t exactly a brand new cast either.
Region 3D first-team selections Grant Elliott and Josh White returned from last year’s squad along with Seth Bonar and Dylan Martin, giving the Trojans four-ninths of their starting lineup. However, Elliott and White were the only two consistent starters from last year’s team, leaving Bonar and Martin with slight learning curves.
The show had to go on, though, so Tunstall put on its red and whites laced up its cleats and took the field. The results followed.
Despite their youth, the Trojans proved their mettle early on, picking up a 1-0 victory over cross-county rival Chatham, one of the top teams in Region 2C, in Tunstall’s second game of the year. It was a contest in which sophomore Hunter Yeatts threw six innings of one-hit, shutout ball, before White came on in the seventh and locked down the rare feat against the Cavaliers.
“That performance against [Chatham] was a big moment for us because it helped us get the ball rolling,” White said. “It gave us the confidence we needed moving forward into the rest of the season.”
The Trojans also were competitive in three of their four games against perennial larger school strongboys Halifax and Franklin counties. While the combined four games against the Eagles and Comets represented Tunstall’s four regular-season losses, competing against some of the best programs in the region was a watershed moment for Shelton and the Trojans.
“Most of the games we’ve lost this season, we’ve been competitive in, but we’ve made some mistakes defensively that have cost us,” Shelton said. “All in all, though, these guys have performed really well considering it’s the first year on varsity for many of these guys.”
Shelton smiles when asked about his team’s grittiness this season.
“The one thing I can say about these guys this year is that they’re scrappy,” Shelton said. “They’re always going to compete, always going to give us a chance to win, and they never give up.”
In Tunstall’s home matchup against Franklin County on March 29, the Trojans fought back from a pair of deficits, scoring a pair of runs in the fourth and four in the sixth to take the lead heading into the final frame. The Eagles had different plans, though, as they scored five runs in the seventh to pick up the 8-6 victory.
Flash forward nearly two months later. Tunstall is hosting Patrick County in the Piedmont District Tournament semifinals. The Trojans’ bats are a little slow getting started and they hold a 1-0 edge over the Cougars heading into the bottom of the fifth.
A line out to left field and ground out to third give the Cougars two quick outs and put them on the verge of getting out of the fifth.
However, Elliott reached on an error after sending a blooper to right field. Logan Pritchett followed with a single and White helped his cause with a two-run double that gave Tunstall a three-run advantage. White made it a 4-0 game when he scored on an error and Yeatts and Dylan Young each recorded RBIs on bases-loaded walks.
By the end of the inning, Tunstall has increased its lead to six, scoring five runs — all of them coming with two outs.
“We’re going to battle until that final strike,” Elliott said. “We’re going to fight and not give up. We don’t hang our heads and find a way to win games.”
Shelton added, “We’ve done a really good job of stringing together some timely hits and scoring some timely runs this season. These guys are scrappers and they fight and find a way to get things done.”
Between a rock and a baseball diamond
Tunstall had the unenviable task of facing Chatham, Franklin County and Halifax in the opening three weeks of the season. All three squads feature pitching staffs with a host of Division-I arms and facing talented pitching so early in the season only proved a benefit to the Trojans. It also has helped get the Trojans ready for their Region 3D opener against Lord Botetourt on Thursday in Dry Fork. Game time is 5:30 p.m.
“Facing Chatham, Franklin County and Halifax so early on in the season gets our guys used to seeing high-caliber pitching,” Shelton said. “They’ve all got guys who can throw in the mid-80s and low-90s and you don’t see that on the JV level. The pitching we’ve faced this season won’t get much harder or faster in the regionals so it’s really helped us get ready for our playoff run.”
Modern technology also has lent a hand in preparing the Trojans for tough pitching.
“Modern pitching machines, being what they are now, can really help you prepare if you know what a guy is pitching because you can simulate that speed for a few days in practice,” Shelton said. “You can get used to that speed and make a few adjustments.”
Bonar has used some of the adjustments in becoming a breakout star on this year’s team. According to Shelton, Bonar has been the most improved player this season and currently sits among the team leaders in many offensive categories.
“I’ve changed my stance at the plate a little bit throughout the season,” Bonar said. “I’ve worked on getting my feet down quicker and keeping my head in. Those little adjustments have helped me see the ball a lot better and really drive through it.”
Perhaps the one benefit of having such a young team is having a high number of experienced players coming back next season.
In all, Tunstall featured 10 players this year playing their first year of varsity ball. With six of them starting and making an impact, the Trojans will have a host of talented players laden with experience coming back next year.
Yeatts has been one of Tunstall’s aces, posting an 8-1 record and a 1.60 ERA. Colin Moore and Colin Bennett will both return next year after having solid seasons. Moore currently holds a 4-0 record to go along with a 1.30 ERA, while Bennett is 2-0 with a 2.14 ERA.
Of course, there is a caveat.
“We’ve really had a lot of help this year from our defense,” Shelton said. “It’s really been one of our bright spots this season.”
According to Shelton, Martin has been the defensive standout for the Trojans. He’s played everywhere on the field this season, where he’s starred at both third base and in left field.
“He’s made some of the best plays this year that I think I’ve seen in my time at Tunstall,” Shelton said. “We’ve always put him wherever we think they’re going to hit the ball the most because he’s a heady player and always gets to the ball.”
Offensively, Pritchett, Bonar, Elliott and Elijah Byrd have all been standouts. Pritchett has led the team in hitting for about half of the season, while Byrd has stayed in the top three or four. Bonar has defined the term clean-up hitter, as he’s currently second on the. Elliott has been the Trojans’ power guy and is only a pair of doubles away from setting the Tunstall season. Yeatts also has had bright moments, the highlight being his two-run blast that helped the Trojans pull away from the Comets in the Piedmont championship game.
“Things haven’t been hunky dory at all times this season, but I’m really proud of these guys,” Shelton said. “We’ve had some moments this year where we’ve really struggled and batting averages have dipped a bit below what we’re used to seeing, but it’s a learning process and these guys have come along nicely.”
Shelton reaches milestone
Tunstall’s Phillip Owens leaned back and threw a fastball in the bottom of the fifth inning against George Washington in early May.
The pitch was a little too hot for GW’s batter to handle and he struck out, completing the Trojans’ lopsided victory.
For the average fan, the win was another notch in Tunstall’s already impressive season. Only the Trojans’ players and staff knew the real importance behind the win.
Owens had just sealed Shelton’s 400th career win.
Walking out of the clubhouse at American Legion Field, home of the Danville Braves and GW baseball, assistant coach Mark Austin confirmed the feat.
“Yeah, that was his 400th,” Austin replied. “We’re holding a ceremony for him before the game against Patrick County so kind of keep it a secret.”
When Shelton showed up to the field for his team’s regular-season tilt against the Cougars, he had a little surprise.
“Coach [Austin] had told me Patrick County was going to be a little late because they had testing so I kept the guys in the locker room for an extra 10-15 minutes because I didn’t want them to get cold waiting for them to show up,” Shelton recalled. “But when I got up to the field, I knew something was up and that [Austin] had planned something when I saw my parents, Gary and Shelby, who don’t get to the games that much anymore, and my wife and grandson there, I knew something was up.
“But he did get me because when I walked up to the field and saw Patrick County out there warming up, I looked over at Coach [Austin] and said, ‘I thought they were going to be late. It was an overwhelming moment and I really got kind of overwhelmed.”
For Tunstall’s players, it was an honor to help their legendary skipper reach the milestone.
“It was a big moment for him and this program and I know me and the guys are really glad we were part of the team that helped get him to this point,” White said.
Bonar added, “It was an amazing moment. Seeing all those people he’s had an impact on coming out and seeing him and seeing us and helping us celebrate that moment with him, was a big deal.”
In a world where such information is only a click away, it was hard for Elliott to keep from going on social media and revealing the secret.
“It was tough because it was a big moment for him, our program and for us as well since we were the team that got it for him,” Elliott said. “It was a big moment because he’s an incredibly humble guy and I’ve learned a lot about being humble just watching him.”