Things didn’t get off to such a hot start for Spring Garden senior catcher Luke Welsh. He struggled at the plate in the early part of the 2021 baseball season.
But once Welsh found a spark, he ignited it into a full-blown blaze.
Welsh finished the season batting .427 with 21 doubles, a pair of triples, 11 walks and 12 home runs. He was also a solid presence behind the plate for the Panthers (25-16), who won the county championship and reached the state quarterfinals in their first season in Class 2A.
The Cherokee County baseball coaches took notice of Welsh’s efforts on the diamond by selecting him as their All-County Most Valuable Player.
Welsh, a Berry College football signee who was also selected the All-County Football Defensive Player of the Year, said he just wanted to enjoy his senior year, especially after COVID-19 wiped out much of his junior baseball season.
“The past two years I’ve worked out pretty hard and I got to where I had a little power,” Welsh said. “I spent a lot of time in the batting cage with (senior teammates) Weston (Kirk) and Ryley (Kirk) this year too, and I think that really helped. I put in a little extra effort to get some more cuts. I struggled at the beginning of the season, and I had to really crank it up, but I think that was just from not having as many reps (coming in from basketball season). I feel like I got a hold of it.”
Outgoing Spring Garden baseball coach Tony Benefield thinks Welsh got a hold of things too. He compares Welsh to another great Panther baseball catcher he’s coached: Corey Anderson.
“Honestly, I don’t think in all the games we played this year we saw a better catcher than him (Welsh). Even the 5A, 6A and 7A teams we played, I don’t think they had a better catcher than us,” Benefield said. “You couldn’t run on him at all. If he caught the ball cleanly from the pitcher, then you were out if you tried to run. A lot of times on a bobbled pitch, he would still throw them out. We found very few teams who even tried to run on us.
“From a hitting standpoint, I’m sure he scared pitchers to death when he stepped into the box. He hit some of the longest home runs I’ve ever seen hit.”
Welsh said he hasn’t modeled his game after anyone in particular, but he has observed many catchers in Major League Baseball swing big sticks. He felt like it was his duty to do the same for the Panthers.
“I guess that’s one aspect I’ve modeled myself after, being a big stick in our lineup, being able to hit home runs or get a base hit whenever we needed it, kind of like those big name guys in the major leagues,” Welsh said. “Getting a lot of reps really helped me be able to do that.”
Benefield said Welsh’s swing is “a natural” for hitting home runs.
“He’s a dead pull hitter, so when he connects it’s going to go a long way,” Benefield said. “He hits the ball hard wherever he hits it. I can remember a couple of times this year he hit the ball so hard on a line drive the third baseman or shortstop couldn’t handle it. It would come off their glove and roll into the outfield. He’d get a single or whatever on that. He’s just a strong kid and he’s extremely athletic. I’m going to enjoy watching him in the future.”
Joining Welsh from Spring Garden on this year’s all-county team is Landon Gowens, Weston Kirk, Jackson Maddox, Cam Welsh and Ryley Kirk. The Panthers also had three honorable mention players in Kenneth Petty, Grayden Guthrie and Chaz Pope.
The Cherokee County Warriors had four all-county selections in Connor Wilson, Tristan Whitefield, Walker Pruett and Cody Adderhold. Malachi Horton and Daegan Scott were chosen honorable mention.
Sand Rock had three all-county selections in Logan Wood, Brian Giles and Slade St. Clair.
Corey Teague and Jacob Burleson represent Cedar Bluff.
Tyler Bentheimer was chosen from Gaylesville. The Trojans also had a pair of honorable mention players in Kyler Bradley and Braden Sharp.