Will Shelton recalls never being the best baseball player on the field growing up.
A recent graduate from Alcoa, Shelton said the sport didn’t come naturally to him for years. That is, until he pitched his first game when he was 9.
“That was when it flipped a switch,” Shelton said. “With baseball, the mound is kind of like home for me. It’s just where I feel like I belong.”
As a senior this season, Shelton led the Tornadoes to a program-best 33 wins as well as their first regional title. The Chattanooga State Community College signee has set himself apart through his work ethic, leadership and drive, which has helped him be named this year’s Daily Times’ Pitcher of the Year.
“It all starts with a certain level of talent, but the thing that stood out over the four years was just how much work he put into that talent,” Alcoa coach Steve Dunn said. “Will is not only the hardest worker I’ve ever had, he’s also one of the best human beings I know.”
Shelton was a four-year varsity player and got his first start on the mound as a freshman against Heritage.
He said he was nervous, understandably, as his expectations for success were tempered against a power-hitting Class 3A school.
“I was like, ‘You know it’s actually going to be pretty hard,’” Shelton said. “’But I’m just trying to figure out where I fit, where I need to go and what I need to improve on.’”
Shelton allowed one earned run, leading the Tornadoes to a 2-1 victory while revealing potential for a promising career.
Dunn said he remembers that game well. He made sure the feat wasn’t lost on Shelton that day.
“People forget we’re a smaller school,” Dunn said. “I remember telling his mom after the game, ‘I don’t think he realizes what he just did.’ What he did was a pretty big deal at that stage of his career. He just kept getting better and better.”
Shelton was a Super Sophomore nominee the following season, something he said he “didn’t think was even possible.” His nine home runs as a junior bested the program’s home run record of eight, and his 10 wins this season broke the previous record of seven.
Shelton also holds Alcoa’s career home run record with 16. This spring, he was the first Blount County player in at least four years to be named a finalist for the Tennessee Baseball Coaches Association’s Division I, Class AA Mr. Baseball Award.
Dunn had lofty expectations for Shelton heading into this season, but Shelton managed to set the bar even higher through his consistency.
“I wouldn’t say it caught us off guard, but we were pleasantly surprised by how much he evolved as a baseball player,” Dunn said. “I told Will early in the year, ‘We’re going to go as far as you take us.’ He looked me right in the eye and said, ‘That’s the only way I’d want it to be.’”
Shelton struck out 87 batters over 68 2/3 innings with a 1.33 ERA and 0.96 WHIP. He pitched a no-hitter in the Tornadoes’ first District 4-AA game against Kingston, setting the tone for their district championship season.
Shelton also contributed offensively in the Region 2-AA championship at Pigeon Forge. He led off the second inning with a solo home run to left field on a full-count curve ball to put Alcoa on the board. It was exactly the spark the Tornadoes needed en route to an 8-2 victory for their first region title.
“This season has been so special in its entirety,” Shelton said. “The whole team — it’s like we just grew into what we were meant to be. … It was a great honor for me and the other seniors to kind of set a status quo for how the program should be.”
Dunn — who has been at the helm of Alcoa’s program for 16 years — knows first-hand the unique combination of talent and character Shelton brought to the table. He regards Shelton as the type of “Mount Rushmore” player whose legacy at Alcoa will stretch well beyond his high school career.
“He’s just going to be one of those kids that I miss more than I can even say,” Dunn said. “From the work he puts in to how much he loves the game to leadership — he’s just one of those kids that epitomizes what you’re trying to do. …
“I say this about a few people, but the world is a better place with him in it.”