DALTON, Ga. — There was a time when playing varsity baseball as a freshman at Dalton High School was unheard of.
For the current group of Catamounts, who are thriving under new coach Rhett Parrott, it's a good thing those days have changed. Eight of Parrott's players got extensive action as freshmen, including a group of six juniors who are leading this year's 8-2 team.
It was former coach Shane Ramsey's plan to play the best players regardless of class, and though the Cats combined to go only 21-35 in two seasons under him, the lumps earned then are paying off now.
"We know that tradition here is very important, and we're excited after struggling some our freshman and sophomore years to get this team back where it belongs," said junior Brock Nelson, who leads the team with a sizzling .581 batting average and 15 RBIs and is 2-0 on the mound. "We've got tremendous support from our fans and in the school as well. Everybody is talking about us right now, and it feels great."
Parrott, who prepped at Northwest Whitfield and was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals as a pitcher, knew he was inheriting a team with experience. What he didn't know was how determined they were to take the next step.
"I wouldn't say I'm surprised, but I'm proud of the way they go about their business and they rely on each other," he said. "Tradition here is very important, and I was blessed with the opportunity to lead this program.
"I'm very impressed with their work ethic, and that's something we didn't have to preach. A lot of that credit goes to Coach (Matt) Land and the football staff for instilling in them."
Keying the early success, which includes two wins over Heritage and a three-game series sweep of Region 7-AAAAA rival Sequoyah, is a lethal lineup with seven regulars hitting better than .300. Along with Nelson, Thomas Wright (.500 average), Cole Shelton (.483 with 14 RBIs and 12 runs), Vinny Vega (.364 with 10 runs and six RBIs) and Maddux Houghton (.300 with 10 runs and five RBIs) are key junior contributors.
Sophomores J.P. Tighe (.375 with nine RBIs) and Harrison Norman (.333, 10 runs, eight RBIs) round out a lineup averaging eight runs per game.
"A big key for us is the guys understand we have a solid lineup, and they do a great job of picking each other up and always pulling for each other," Parrott said. "If we can continue that approach, we can have a lot of success this year."
Nelson believes an early win over Heritage and future University of Georgia pitcher Cole Wilcox set the tone for the season.
"What stood out to me is when we had such success against the Heritage kid," Nelson said. "The very next game we beat Sequoyah 16-0, and we've been hitting ever since, from the top of the order to the bottom."
The pitching hasn't been bad, either. With Region 7-AAAAA playing three-game series to determine its playoff teams, the Catamounts will play at least that many games a week.
So far, the rotation of Nelson, Shelton and Norman has more than held up.
"Brock and Cole, our two right-handers, consistently throw strikes, and we've fielded well," Parrott said. "They've done a great job of getting ahead and not trying to do too much."
Shelton (2-0) hasn't given up a run in 12 innings and has allowed just two hits. Nelson has a 2.14 ERA and has 15 strikeouts in 19 innings, while lefty Norman has given up just seven hits in 13 innings with an ERA of 3.23.
"We know if we keep hitting like we have and keep our arms healthy, this is going to be an exciting season," Nelson said. "There's no reason we can't keep this up."
Contact Lindsey Young at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6296. Follow him on Twitter @youngsports22.