High School : : General
Thursday, February 16, 2017

Walton stays strong in PG SE

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: T.C. Brewster

2017 Perfect Game High School Preview Index

They’re gone now, that stellar group of prospects that were members of the 2016 graduating class at Marietta (Ga.) George Walton Comprehensive High School, or just plain Walton High School to its family and friends.

There were 11 seniors listed on the official 2016 Walton Raiders’ roster, and the legacy they left will be lasting; the impact they had on the program nothing if not historical. In 2015 and 2016, those seniors helped the Raiders to back-to-back appearances in the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) Class AAAAAA state finals – three-game series the Raiders lost to Lilburn Parkview in 2015 and took from rival Marietta Pope last spring.

The 2015 and 2016 Raiders’ teams posted a combined record of 62-11 (the team was 23-8 when the class of 2016 players were sophomores in 2014) and the 2016 championship was the first for the program since it won a Class AAAAA title in 2007; it also won in Class AAAA in 1992.

The Raiders ended up No. 2 in the 2016 Perfect Game High School Final National Top 50 Rankings, behind only Venice (Fla.) Senior High School.

“it’s fun to watch and it’s fun to be a part of,” Walton 15th-year head coach Shane Amos told Perfect Game recently when asked about the two-year run of excellence. “I tell people all the time the most nerve-racking thing is getting through your region. Once you get down into the state tournament you can tell the guys, ‘This is what you’ve earned, now you can just get out there and play.’ …

“To watch them go out there and take care of their business and have fun doing it, that’s fantastic as a coach to get to see that,” he continued. “And to finally get to see last year the fruits of their labor come through, it was just fantastic for those kids.”

There were, indeed, some sizable holes to fill in the 2017 roster, especially those left by the graduation of four 2016 standouts. Shortstop Carter Kieboom had signed on with the Clemson Tigers but that trip was re-routed when the Washington Nationals selected him with 28th pick of the first-round in the 2016 MLB Amateur Draft, and a reported $2 million signing bonus convinced him to become a professional.

Right-hander Zak Kristofak – a 37th-round pick of the hometown Atlanta Braves – decided to honor his commitment to the University of Georgia; catcher Drake Frix is at the College of Charleston and middle-infielder Parker McCoy has settled-in at Georgia Tech.

Those guys are now on the next stage, but the Walton tradition remains intact. The Raiders sit in the No. 9 position in the 2017 Perfect Game High School Preseason Top 50 Rankings, a number that makes them the second highest ranked team from the PG HS Southeast Region (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee) behind only Lake Charles (La.) Alfred M. Barbe.

The Raiders dropped their 2017 season-opener to South Forsyth, 8-4, on Feb. 13, and a romp back into a third straight GHSA state championship series is far from guaranteed. But there’s a new group of seniors on board in 2017 – four of whom PG has in its top-500 of the national class of 2017 prospect rankings – and everyone would be surprised if Walton were to miss much of a beat.

“We have a young team this year and we still have a lot of work to do, but it will come along,” top senior outfielder Jason Rooks told PG over the telephone this week. “We’re ranked No. 1 (in Georgia) going into the season and that’s all good, but we still have a lot of work to do.

“We have a lot of young players that are trying to find their duties on the team; they have to start feeling comfortable because a lot of them have never played in a varsity game.”

That is an assessment shared by Amos, who has been around the program for 30 years and has been a part of all three of the school’s state baseball championships.

“The biggest thing we’re going to have to deal with right now is that we’re young; people don’t realize that we graduated a lot of players from last year,” he said. “We’re young across the infield – we’ve got a lot of sophomores out there this year – and they’re going to have to grow up and kind of see what it’s all about.

“They went from being freshman and hitting JV pitching and now they’re trying to hit some of the top guys around. This is all new for them and it’s going to take them a little time to get that caught up.”

And time, it would seem, is on the Raiders’ side.

… … …

who has signed with Georgia Tech and who PG ranks as the No. 160 overall national prospect in the class of 2017 (No. 12 Georgia). He’s been at 27 Perfect Game events since the summer of 2012 – including the 2016 PG National Showcase – and has been named to 12 PG WWBA and PG BCS all-tournament teams, most of them as a member of the Georgia Jackets.

But all that business was taken care of during the summer and fall, and when the calendar flips to February, March, April and May, Rooks’ entire attention is directed only at his teammates and the coaching staff with the Walton Raiders.

“There is nothing else like putting a Raiders’ jersey on,” Rooks said. “Once you put that on, everybody wants to beat your (butt) and everyone just wants to jump on you and beat you 10-to-nothing. But Raiders always fight; they never give up. It’s just a great feeling to put that jersey on.”

Other prospects back for their senior seasons in 2017 include middle-infielder Michael Guldberg, a top-500 who has also signed with Georgia Tech; catcher Jason Avers, top-500, Appalachian State; right-hander Chris Rolick, top-500, Georgia College & State, and right-hander/outfielder Forrest Wilson, High-Follow, Georgia College & State.

“They’ve been there before and the biggest thing now is, do they know how to lead, because those guys that graduated last year were our leaders,” Amos said of his seniors. “Everything is kind of being re-established right now, and we’re trying to find our way and seeing what’s going on, and I think that’s something that’s just going to take a little time.

“We’re going to have to lean on them, and they’re going to have to realize they need to take that (leadership) role on,” he continued. “They need to shoulder that (responsibility) for us and they need to help us get through this. We’re definitely putting that one them and hopefully they can handle it.”

The junior class is also talented, led by Luke Bartnicki and Jacob Riordan. The left-hander Bartnicki is a Georgia Tech commit PG ranks No. 12 nationally in the 2018 class (No. 5 Georgia) and the right-hander Riordan is ranked Nos. 165/23.

Turnover is a part of high school baseball – the essence, really, of what makes it great – and the elite programs with the great coaching staffs readily adapt. It’s the same challenge facing every prep program from coast-to-coast, and not in just the hotbeds like the Greater Atlanta Metropolitan Area or South Florida or Southern California or the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

The young players just entering those programs – each with varying skill levels and each carrying the burning desire to succeed – walk in wide-eyed and it’s up to the coaching staffs to connect the dots. The staffs that do the best job of dot-connecting end up with state and national championship-caliber programs like the one Amos oversees at Walton High School.

“It’s just one of those things that kind of goes in cycles sometimes,” he said. “You might have a group that goes through that’s really successful, and it’s not that the next group is not as talented, it’s just that it has to start somewhere.”

He pointed out that the seniors he could march out onto the field on a daily basis in 2016 were the sophomores everyone was talking about in 2014. This year’s seniors were highly touted sophomores in 2015 and this year’s sophomores will be expected to compete at a high level in 2019; it truly is a circle that remains unbroken.

Rooks noted that while the coaching staff might allude to the program’s impressive historical record at appropriate times, its focus is on what lies ahead: the next day, the next practice, the next game, the next pitch, the next at-bat. By instilling that “what’s next” attitude into their players, the coaches can make sure their team is collectively pumped-up for three months of non-stop baseball.

“I am so excited about my senior season,” Rooks said. “I’ve been playing varsity since my freshman year, and it’s never gotten old; it’s never been like you dread another day. For me, it’s always been that I can’t wait until school is over so I can get to practice, or it might be, ‘Oh, we’ve got a game today? Sweet!’

“I’m always excited to play and with this being my senior year I’m even more excited,” he said. “It just keeps getting more and more exciting each and every day.”

… … …

which also includes the teams from Canton Cherokee, Woodstock Etowah, Marietta Lassiter, Roswell and Woodstock high schools; Lassiter won a GHSA Class AAAAA state championship as recently as 2006.

Amos also put together a formidable non-region schedule that includes a home game with always-strong Cartersville HS, and games against Roanoke (Ala.) Handley HS and Johns Creek (Ga.) HS as part of the Perfect Game High School Spring Swing at the LakePoint Sports Complex in Cartersville on Feb. 25.

“We’ve got a tough schedule,” he said. “I didn’t go out and schedule (lightly) because (this team is) young; we tried to schedule teams that were in the playoffs last year. … We’re playing top-caliber programs that are probably a little bit more mature than we are right now, and I’m hoping that in the long run when we get to Region play that’s going to benefit us.”

That is the thought process former head coach Dennis Jordan – Amos was Jordan’s assistant coach for 15 years before succeeding him as head coach – used in building the program more than 30 years ago.

During Amos’ 14-year tenure leading the program, the Raiders have missed the state playoffs only four times. The 2007 team won the Class AAAAA state championship with a three-game series victory over Kennesaw Mountain HS, and Amos guided the program back to the championship series in both 2008 and 2015, when they finished as runner-up.

Amos, who was the head coach at Mableton Pebblebrook HS for two seasons (1996-97), picked up his 300th career victory after a victory over Lassiter last March. Jeff Rowland, the longtime head coach at Marietta Pope – a GHSA Class AAAAAA school again this season – had nothing but praise for Amos at the time he achieved the milestone.

“It’s a quality program and kids want to play there,” Rowland told the Marietta Daily Journal. “It’s a quality program; they don’t rebuild, they reload every year. For him to maintain that consistency through the years says a lot about him.”

When the new team is brought together for the first time after late-winter tryouts, Amos and his staff try to get their message across almost immediately. They talk about the program’s history and tradition and speak of the prospects that put on the uniform before them, and they challenge each new group to keep that history moving forward.

No one has the right to tear the program down, is the central message, and variations of the “There is no ‘I’ in TEAM” mantra are touted. The players are encouraged to think about what they can do to make the program stronger and not what the program can do to benefit the individual player.

“It’s about, ‘What does Walton baseball mean to you?’” Amos said. “We play for the name that’s across (the front of) the jersey; we’re not playing for what’s on the back of the jersey. We want to instill a winning mindset, because it is a mindset. You have to have the confidence to go out there and get the job done.”

Amos insists that he is a big supporter of the summer ball travel programs – the state of Georgia in general and the Atlanta-area in particular are home to some of the country’s most elite, most established and most respected organizations in the country – but he doesn’t feel like summer ball puts the same sort of pressure on a young player that he will feel during a typical spring high school season.

“There just aren’t the same things on the line like there is in high school,” he said. “Nothing against summer ball, but if I go 0-and-4 at a tournament, well, I’ve got another one coming next week. Where here, if you drop three, four or five games in your region, you’re sitting at home; you’re done.”

Walton finished second behind Pope in last year’s GHSA Class AAAAAA Region 5 standings – the teams split a pair of regular-season games – before sweeping Pope in the first two games of the best-of-3 championship series. Jason Avers drove in a pair of runs with a one-out, walk-off single in the bottom of the seventh to lift the Warriors to a 5-4 win in the series-clinching second game.

The 2016 Warriors didn’t lose a single game on their way to the championship, winning all five of their best-of-3 playoffs’ series 2-0. It was quite the ride.

“Last year was absolutely insane,” Rooks said, thinking back on his junior season. “The year before we were the runner-up and we kind of felt like we had missed out on a once-in-a-lifetime chance, but then it ended up happening right away the next year. We had six senior starters and three junior starters and we had a solid team; that whole lineup was really good.”

The wheel is put in motion the first time the players slip on that Walton jersey and it keeps spinning until another legacy is left behind. A slight stumble in their 2017 opener won’t do anything to temper the high expectations this group of Raiders will meet throughout the rest of the season.

“We’ve got a strong tradition here at Walton,” Amos concluded. “We’ve had great success over the past 30 years; Coach Jordan started it and I’ve just basically kept it going. So, it’s been a great run over here at Walton and I see it continuing to go forward, too. We’ve just got to do some growing up right now.”

Copyright 1994-2018 by Perfect Game. All rights reserved. No portion of this information may be reprinted or reproduced without the written consent of Perfect Game.