The Cartersville baseball program boasts an incredibly talented senior class — an even deeper one than last year's headlined by MLB draft picks Anthony Seigler and Devin Warner.
A good portion of that talent was on display Wednesday in the high school media center, as five Canes had a ceremony in recognition of signing their national letters of intent to play collegiate baseball.
"It's an awesome day, and it's just a testament to what the program is and what it's been built upon," Cartersville head coach Kyle Tucker said, crediting the coaches who came before him. "... We're just trying to keep the tradition going. They say success breeds success.
"A lot of these guys have been a big part of our program. They've grown up here. Some of them, we've known since Little League. It's a really cool day, a happy day. Like I told the group, seeing this many people here — all the family and friends — is really awesome."
One by one, the players and their families gathered at a table to have their pictures taken in front of the familiar Canes backdrop.
First up was pitcher Mason Barnett. He's the latest in a growing pipeline from Cartersville to Auburn that includes Elliott Anderson and Warner, who turned down a late-round selection by Arizona to join the Tigers.
"I think Auburn is very similar to Cartersville, as far as the people," Barnett said. "... That's what drew me, and that's what I feel like drew them, too."
Last season, Barnett excelled at the plate just as much as he did on the mound. He hit .365 with a .461 on-base percentage, 11 doubles, 31 RBIs and 32 runs scored.
The right-hander didn't pitch for a good portion of his junior campaign, but he put up solid numbers across the board when he did, anchoring the staff in the playoffs. Barnett finished with an 8-2 record, 1.29 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, .187 BAA and 68 strikeouts across 49 innings.
"Mason, first and foremost is an outstanding person, he makes our program better just by being there — forget that he can throw the baseball so well," Tucker said. "He was the guy we rode in the state playoffs last year, I think, won four state tournament games. We pitched him against everybody else's No. 1. ...
"He was our designated hitter and did a great job at the plate last year. We don't make the run we did without him offensively."
Next up was infielder Jordan Wilkie. Decked out in a purple Lipscomb polo, Wilkie fit right in with the Purple Hurricane decor.
He came on strong at the plate last season, posting a tremendous .378/.439/.514 triple-slash line in the playoffs to help Cartersville reach the Class 4A state championship series.
"Another outstanding person who has baseball talent to go with it," Tucker said of his all-county third baseman. "I'm looking for him to be a really good leader this year. He's not going to necessarily be a vocal leader, but he leads by his actions — through his work in practice, the way he represents himself here at the school [and] in the classroom."
Next up was utility player J.P. Martin. Primarily an outfielder last season for the Canes, Martin has the versatility to play all over the field in the coming years for Georgia Highlands.
"We love and respect that program, it's right here in town, which is awesome," Tucker said of the Chargers. "J.P. can stay at home and play for a team that's having a lot of success. He's going to get a lot of opportunities in front of a lot of scouts. ...
"You can tell he's getting a little more physical. He's bigger; he's stronger. I think his best days are ahead of him."
Martin made the difficult decision to decommit from Alabama and instead attend his hometown junior college in an effort to save up money for another shot at a Power Five school in two years time.
"Baseball is going to end one day," Martin said. "I can go to Highlands for really cheap. I'm going for free, basically. I'll save a lot of money. I'll be working during the summer, and one day, I'll transfer out and play somewhere and have that money to play. I'll get bigger, better, faster, stronger."
Next up was outfielder Preston Welchel. Undoubtedly one of the best defensive center fielders in the state, Welchel finally saw his bat start to catch up with his glove in Region 5-AAAA play last season.
"It's just special," Welchel said of the event. "I've always dreamed of going to play D-I baseball. It finally came true, so just follow your dreams."
Despite having a lot of interested schools, Welchel said he it took just one visit to South Alabama's campus in Mobile to know where he wanted to play college baseball.
"When I stepped on the campus, it was like a spark hit me," Welchel said. "I wanted to be here. Then, I sat down with the coach and he told my parents and I eye-to-eye, behind closed doors that, 'I'll be another father figure to your kid. I'll make sure he stays out of trouble and keeps his grades up. He's welcome to stay with me if he doesn't want to go home for the weekend.' That's how I made my decision, because no other coach would have said that."
Said Tucker, "I've known Preston since he was probably 5 years old. He came to a youth football camp that we had out here on our practice field a long time ago. ... He's a Cartersville guy, and you always like to see those guys have success."
Last up was pitcher Logan Martin. After not playing for the Canes the past two seasons, Martin is planning to join the team again in the spring. He will be a welcome addition, having pitched well enough outside of the school program to earn an offer to Division III University of the South, Sewanee in Tennessee.
"He decided that he'd like to come back and give this thing a shot," Tucker said of Martin playing for the Canes again. "... I'm excited about getting him back, like all of them, not just for the talent but for the kind of person he is. He's going to work hard. He's going to do right. He excels in the classroom, and I'm sure he's going to excel on the baseball field."
Martin said Sewanee fit his academic track, which includes a major in economics with a track towards pre-law, and fulfilled his athletic goals.
"I think it was a great fit, athletically and academically, for me," Martin said. "It has a great academic program and has a lot of the majors I wanted to look into. First was always academics and when athletics came on, it made it even easier."
After having his five players celebrate their signing, which actually took place Nov. 14 on the official National Signing Day for sports outside of football and basketball, Tucker was already looking ahead to having a few of the other talented seniors join the group of future college baseball players.
"I don't think we're done," he said. "... Five today and hopefully more to come."
J.P. Martin certainly expects more of his classmates to sign in the coming months, something he's looking forward to celebrating.
"We've all played together, and we're all going to go, one day, and play somewhere else," Martin said of the five who have signed. "... It feels really good playing with these guys and seeing these guys accomplish their goals. There's other guys on the team who have offers. They just haven't signed yet. We're just waiting for that."
Even with more signings likely still to come, Wednesday's group of five seemed to work out well. For one thing, the media center wouldn't have been able to hold many more people or much more food than was crammed into it for this ceremony.
"It feels perfect," Wilkie said of the occasion. "We've been through the ups and downs together. We've been through getting knocked out as soon as the playoffs started [in 2017]. We went all the way to the state championship. Just feeling the emotions, that we've seen everybody at their highs and lows. Us just coming together and congratulating each other just felt perfect."
During a speech to the gathered crowd following all of the necessary photos, Tucker mentioned that competing for championships is far down on the list of priorities for the program. To be sure, winning a state title, particularly after last year's heartbreak, is still on the list, but developing young men takes precedence.
Afterward, Tucker said his hopes for the Class of 2019 are the same for the senior class from his first season in charge of the Canes: enjoy the ride.
"I want the same thing for these guys," Tucker said. "I want them to just enjoy every moment. I hope they get enough moments to go through the state championship and experience that, but like I told them, there's a lot of moments in between now and the end of the season.
"If we end with a championship, that'd be great. But I hope that whether we do or we don't, we enjoy the journey and have a lot of fun along the way."