The pregame lineup card Fuquay-Varina baseball coach Milton Senter submits lists only one senior, but his team has proven more mature than suggested on paper or even than the veteran coach admits he expected.
How else to explain Fuquay advancing to the best-of-3 East final of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A playoffs? The Bengals (22-6), ranked No. 3 among area schools and seeded No. 6, meet Millbrook (18-9), unranked and seeded No. 21, Wednesday for Game 1.
Junior right fielder Justin Shelton has been one of the underclassmen playing and leading like a senior. The 6-foot, 180-pounder, who is batting clean-up in his second varsity season, paces the team in home runs (6) and RBIs (29). His .413 batting average is the highest among teammates who have played more than 20 games.
“We’ve bonded as a team this year,” said Shelton, citing how the players gather after games at Cookout to devour burgers. “Baseball is a team sport, but it’s also individuals. We’ve been a tighter team this year with outstanding pitching, fielding and hitting.”
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Shelton’s breakout year has overcome the discouragement of his first two high school seasons. He missed his freshman year with a wrist surgery and his sophomore season he hit only .216 with one home run and 10 RBIs.
“I worked hard in the off-season on my swing with (assistant) coach (Ken) Daniels,” said Shelton, who was 3 of 4 with two RBIs and two runs scored in Friday’s 14-1 fourth-round win against Northern Durham. “I came back this year with more confidence in my swing and learned to adjust to pitches a lot quicker.”
He didn’t let last season or the offseason interruptions of rain and snow days stunt his progress or dim his passion for baseball. On such dates, he camped out at Hit and Run, a Fuquay-Varina business operated by another Bengals assistant coach, Tom Hayes.
“He probably wasn’t ready last year, but we needed him to play,” Senter said. “He gained valuable experience while struggling a bit. Then he worked hard in the offseason, and this year he’s been one of our best hitters, best defenders and one of our leaders.”
Shelton has contributed defensively despite a shift from catcher to right field. A highlight of his outfield play came May 19 during a 9-0 win in the third round against Pine Forest. He cut off a line drive down the right-field line, pivoted and threw out the surprised runner at second base.
Shelton credited working with assistant coach Zach Boraski for adapting to right-field nuances and discovering the thrill of throwing out runners.
“I like those do-or-die situations with a line drive or a grounder and you have to throw as hard as you can to home, third or second,” he said. “I like being able to launch it.”
So much so he paused for a second when asked if he enjoys it more than a home run.
“Uh ... I’d still say a home run,” he said.
Senter sites Shelton’s speed, power and defense as reasons he has a future playing beyond high school. His long-standing custom is to meet with players wanting to play in college after their junior year to discuss goals. Then he’ll make phone calls to assist finding the right college, adding talk for the rare kid that is draft potential takes care of itself.
But the way Shelton and the Bengals have played this year, their postseason conversation has been delayed at least another week.