GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (WJHL) — With Daniel Boone High School graduate Colby Backus and a former Science Hill Hilltopper playing key roles in the lineup, the Walters State Community College Senators are just two or three wins from a Junior College World Series championship.
“You get to the field and you just feel the energy, and it’s electric,” Backus told News Channel 11 Tuesday over Zoom. “Hearing all the people cheering and seeing everyone in the seats, it’s something I’ve never experienced before.”
The top-seeded Senators have won their first two games, including a 16-8 win over College of Central Florida Monday in front of more than 10,600 fans. The team takes on second seed Wabash Valley (Ill.) at 9:30 p.m. eastern time Wednesday.
That game can be streamed through the National Junior College Athletic Association website’s “network” site found here.
“We’re definitely feeling good and we feel like we got a good shot to compete every day,” Backus said. “To not only win, to win by a lot. I feel like we have a really good team right now.”
Backus, a left fielder, made a key diving catch Monday with the Senators up 9-8 and the bases loaded in the top of the fifth inning of a game in which he also drove in three runs.
“It was a cool experience hearing everyone yelling,” Backus said of the catch in shallow center-left that came after a long sprint. “Definitely felt like that it shifted the whole game. It stopped the bleeding.”
Where Backus saved the team’s lead in the fifth, Science Hill graduate Caleb Marmo, a redshirt freshman like Backus, played a key role earlier in the game. The Senators had fallen behind early, entering the bottom of the fourth down 5-2.
They’d scored already when the left-handed hitting Marmo delivered a two-run single, pulling the ball to right field.
Backus, who had a sacrifice fly in the fourth, helped the team tack on insurance runs in a four-run seventh. He hit an opposite field single that scored two runs to give the Senators a 14-8 lead.
“I had two flyouts early in the game and I was just missing underneath them,” he said. “That last at bat there was runners on second and third and my main goal was just get a little line drive or ground ball, and I ended up kind of getting beat a little bit but it bounced over the first baseman’s head down the line and ended up scoring two runs. Got the job done.”
Walters State coach Dave Shelton said the team is off to a much better start in the 10-team bracket than it had last year, when the perennial powerhouse Senators were seeded second. It was the first year of seeding, but the team lost its first game, won just one loser’s bracket contest before falling and came home seventh.
The Senators won it all in 2006 and had their only runner-up finish in 2018 when they lost to Chipola College.
“These teams out here are so good it doesn’t really matter where you’re seeded,” Shelton told News Channel 11. The Senators beat Harford Community College 12-6 Saturday for their first win in the series.
Backus, who finished the season with 19 home runs, 17 doubles and a .398 average, was two for five with an RBI double and three runs in that game.
“It’s been a really productive offense,” Shelton said. “We led the nation in home runs this year and kind of had some guys step up. We lost a lot of firepower off our team last year.”
The Senators’ three, four and five hitters from 2021 all transferred to Division I schools and combined for more than 50 homers this year for University of North Carolina, University of Indiana and UNC-Charlotte.
“They could have all been back with us this year but they got scholarships to four-year schools and moved on, so we’ve had some guys really come in and step up, just like Colby.”
Backus will be following in those departed players’ footsteps after getting a scholarship offer from the University of Tennessee, where he’ll play next year.
Shelton said the 6’4”, 235-pound left fielder “probably could go down to UT and play tight end.
“He’s been a blessing. I don’t know if I’ve ever had anybody work harder than he does. Lives in the weight room, lives in the batting cages and just really gets after it and it’s kind of turned him into the player that he’s become.”
Right now, though, Backus, Marmo and the rest of the team are focused on Wabash Valley. If they win that game, they await the winner of Wabash against Cowley, a team that’s won three straight after a first-round loss. Lose Wednesday and the Senators must get by Cowley themselves to get another shot at Wabash.
Wesley Scott, a transfer from University of Arizona, takes the mound for Walters State Thursday. While Scott, who was 8-2, is one of what Shelton called “three or four aces” on his team, he’ll be as hard-pressed as any pitcher in Grand Junction’s thin air.
Central Florida tagged Kohl Drake, who led Walters State in the regular season with a 14-0 record and posted a 1.93 ERA, for five earned runs in three and two-thirds innings Monday.
Wabash had three of the nation’s top hitters, all of whom hit above .400 this regular season. Wabash squeaked into Wednesday’s game with a walk-off home run Tuesday night.
Backus said Shelton warned his players before the tournament there would be blood, regardless of any team’s pitching strength.
“He said the main thing about it, they’re going to score runs. In this air like it’s more about stopping the bleeding and being able to pass it to our offense more than just like pitching shutout games or playing shutout games.”
Backus said he hopes he and Marmo, along with Science Hill graduate Landon Slemp, can help bring the trophy back to Morristown for the first time since he was a pre-schooler.
“It’s an awesome opportunity. Anytime you can kind of represent your hometown is a good time, so we’re just trying to kind of relax in. that and make our city proud.
“Every pitcher we face has been an elite arm. Good stuff, so it’s more, instead of thinking our home run approach, just kind of line drives that get through and just keep the team rolling. Pass it on to the next man.”
The next few days will mark Backus’s last chance to keep the Senators rolling. The blossoming prospect who hopes to major in kinesiology and possibly pursue a medical degree after life in baseball (he hopes that time will come later, not sooner) said he looks forward to trying make a mark on the Volunteers squad.
“Super excited,” he said of the opportunity. “Obviously one of the best college programs you can go to. Just looking to compete for a job and be able to not only bring home this trophy this year but the trophy in Omaha (home of the College World Series) next year.”