The 2013 season will mark the third overall year of Golden Knight baseball and its second competing in Region 17 of the National Junior College Athletic Association. The high hopes for this year start with the opening series, led by one of the team's top returning players from a year ago.
"We're opening up against LaGrange College, their JV team, and we're looking to be successful this year. We've got some veterans coming back. Obviously, Rus Morman, a .320 hitter last year, he'll bat third and will be expected to lead our offense," WGTC coach Todd Pratt said.
Along with Morman, Sean Watson will come back and after splitting time in right field to become the team's everyday starter there this season, along with batting in the clean-up spot, providing size and even some speed to the lineup. Justin Batcher and Matthew Pope return behind the plate. The two will split time until Region 17 games begin, then whoever performed better will take over rather than splitting time all year.
The decision was made by Pope and Batcher to not platoon at catcher and have the best producer earn the starting spot in region games.
"I feel comfortable with both. We just made a decision before the season started. The three of us sat down and decided instead of splitting time all year, they agreed that if one guy won the job in non-conference that he'll be the starting catcher in conference. I feel very comfortable with their game-calling and their defense. It basically comes down to offensively who does the job. They're both pretty well-suited for the job," Pratt said.
The other position battles that will take place during non-conference play will come at the other two outfield positions and shortstop. Pratt believes he may have his shortstop in freshman Bryan Campbell out of Douglas County, but wants to see how he handles playing at the next level. For left and center fields, the WGTC coach has four to five outfielders vying for those spots, but the most important is to shore up center field by conference play.
Not only do the Golden Knights have NCAA programs looking at their players for possible transfers, but West Georgia Tech has become a spot for players to come and get a little more time and exposure if they aren't getting it elsewhere.
The Golden Knights have picked up a pair of transfers from the University of West Georgia in third baseman Nic Vinson and Beau Welburn at second base. Also coming in is from Augusta State is pitcher Tyler Banks, who will be a No. 4 starter for the Knights.
On the mound, Brad Bartlett will return as the Golden Knight ace who was one of the top pitchers in Region 17 a season ago with a 2.60 ERA in conference. A pair of freshmen will join the rotation, with Kyle Peals coming from Coosa High School and Chris Irwin from Hiram.
The pitching staff, especially the bullpen, might be the place most improved this season. Last year Pratt felt like he had to rely on his starters more with some unknowns as options for the later innings. This year, with scholarships, the depth is there for the head coach to have some options late in the game.
"As we did add scholarships this year, our depth in the bullpen got much better. Last year it was kind of a flip of a coin, just whoever could do the job and throw some pitches. Our starters went deep into a lot of games and I don't expect that to be a problem this year. Our bullpen has some depth and I'm happy with it," Pratt said.
That depth and a little more experience has led to some higher expectations for the Golden Knights. Last year WGTC went 19-35 and 10-22 in Region 17. This time around, Pratt wants to flip that record and have his team playing in the postseason.
"I feel that this year our goals are to reach the tournament, obviously. We all stepped in and said we want to win the championship, but I think a realistic goal for West Georgia Tech this year would be able to be in the middle of the pack and play above .500," Pratt said. "We didn't have the depth [last year] and this year I put up a lofty goal of 33-23. I think if we come close to that, it's going to be a successful year. In just our second season and first season on scholarships, if we're in the tournament I think it's a great, successful year."
It has been a quick growth for the Golden Knights, who opened up as a club team in 2011, moved to NJCAA last year and now have added scholarship players widening some options for Pratt and his staff when it comes to players available to them. The Golden Knights already have a commitment from a Class of 2013 player and more are expected, especially if this season is a success.
"I count that club season, but that was just kind of a sample of what we're going to do at West Georgia Tech. I think [Athletic Director] Walter Dunson has been a big backer of us and [Dr.] Skip Sullivan, the president, have given us what we needed to compete. I think we're starting to see a lot more excitement, I'm starting to get more calls from D-I and D-II schools and Major League scouts. For a newborn program, I think we've come a long way and have grown up quick," Pratt said.
All that's left is to step on the field and get the season underway. The Golden Knights will continue to play their home games at Norton Field at the Douglas County Sports Complex in Douglasville.
"I think we're ready to go and let's go," Pratt said. "Let's play ball."