Senior shortstop Clifton Dempsey is one of those very good ballplayers, but at 5-9, 150 pounds, he won’t draw any pro scouts to Richard Bell Field.
However, the Maryville College commit embodies the characteristics — grit, determination and a knack for the clutch — that have led to Cartersville’s berth in the state semifinals.
“He..., he..., he... just guts,” Chester said after deliberating for a few seconds when asked to describe Dempsey. “He’s the hardest worker. He’s a great kid. He’s a gamechanger. He’s a person-changer. He’s a playmaker. In the locker room, he’s an absolute leader.”
Dempsey has recorded at least one hit in each of Cartersville’s seven playoff games and is hitting .321 in 28 at bats with eight RBIs and five runs scored in the postseason.
On Tuesday, he hit the two-run double in the second inning to give Cartersville the lead for good. It was his sixth playoff RBI with runners in scoring position and two outs.
Dempsey is having quite the season, but his successes are emblematic of his entire team’s improbable run to the semifinals. Last season, Cartersville had the highly recruited Connor Justus, now the starting shortstop at Georgia Tech. During the early 2000’s three-peat, it was Russ Mitchell, a 15th-round MLB draft pick in 2003.
This season, it is a 5-foot-9 Division III recruit, but Dempsey has been more than good enough to lead the Canes to the semifinals.
Dempsey also is the only everyday position player left over from last season’s state championship team, but even he was rarely called on to hit last season in the playoffs as he was often replaced in the lineup by the designated hitter.
Now the leadoff batter, Dempsey began the year batting in the latter half of the order and is one of many players exceeding expectations this season.
“We come out here this year and we graduate just about every starter — pitching, catching, just about everything,” Chester said. “At the beginning of the season, nobody had us ranked. We weren’t in the top 10. Nobody was giving us any type of credit or any type of chance.”
Cartersville first-base coach Kyle Tucker took to Twitter Thursday night after the win against Callaway and wrote: “We may not have a roster full of 4 stars, but 1-23 we are a 4 star TEAM.”
On a team noted more for its depth than top-flight talent, Dempsey has been Cartersville’s closest thing to a star this year. During the regular season, he started every game and hit .363 with 18 runs scored, 15 RBIs, 10 walks and six extra-base hits.
However, after playing second base a year ago, it is the shortstop’s glove that makes Dempsey stand out.
“Pound for pound, he might be one of the best defensive players to come through this program,” Chester said.
Dempsey’s defensive skills were critical to Cartersville’s victory Thursday in Game 3 against Callaway.
During the fourth inning, Callaway’s speedy third baseman, Terry Godwin, chopped a ball over the pitcher’s head. Dempsey came charging in, scooped the ball off a short hop and fired off one foot just in time to get Godwin at first base.
It is not the first time Dempsey has made a difficult play seem routine, but the shortstop’s smooth, calm demeanor amidst a challenging play is reminiscent of former standout Cartersville shortstops.
“He had a great mentor last year in Connor Justus,” Chester said of Dempsey. “We’ve had a tradition of great shortstops to come through here — Russ Mitchell, Connor Justus and Clifton Dempsey’s name is going to be right up there with those guys.”
Dempsey exhibited his defensive prowess later in the game as well. The Cavaliers were threatening with two runners on bases and no outs in the fifth inning. Callaway’s Austin Garrett hit a groundball in the hole between Dempsey and third baseman Garrett Rutledge. Dempsey made a diving stop to keep the ball in the infield and prevent a run from scoring.
The very next batter was Callaway’s No. 3 hitter, Cody Mimbs, who had homered earlier in the game. With the bases loaded and no outs, Mimbs hit a line drive that appeared to be a sure base hit off the bat. Dempsey tracked back a few steps, leaped and made the improbable grab. Even the runner at third base had already started to run home, figuring Dempsey would not make the difficult catch. As a result, Dempsey was able to throw to third base for the double play.
The catch prevented a big inning for Callaway and preserved Cartersville’s three-run advantage.
Dempsey is confident he will continue to make plays and that his team can keep its improbable run going through Monday’s semifinal doubleheader at Buford.
“I’ve been here before, but there’s something different about this team,” he said. “This year’s team, we had guys on JV last year, didn’t know hot to take it coming in, I guess. But we’re really coming together now.
“We’re gelling at the right time and there’s nothing that can separate us right now. We’re coming together as a family and as a team.”