By Christian Malone

VALDOSTA -- A month ago, Austin Bennett thought he was going back to Georgia Military College this semester, and baseball was going to have to wait at least another year.

Then Oglethorpe University called, desperate for players, especially pitchers. Now Bennett's preparing to put on a college baseball uniform.

Bennett, a left-handed pitcher and outfielder from Valdosta High, signed with Oglethorpe last week.

"It's always been a goal," Bennett said. "The fact that I didn't think I would be playing this year, and then it did happen, it's still hard to take in."

In his search for players, Oglethorpe head coach Mike Roberts called Valdosta High coach Bart Shuman. Shuman told him about a left-handed pitcher that had played for him. Roberts contacted Bennett, and that started the process that got Bennett headed to the Atlanta school.

Now Bennett can't wait to play.

"I'm excited. I love playing baseball, and to get a chance to play in college is amazing," he said. "There are a lot of good players that don't get to play college ball, so for me to get this chance, it's great."

It didn't even matter that he'd be playing for a team called the Stormy Petrels. Oglethorpe's unique mascot (it's a rare bird found along the Atlantic Coast) has earned it plenty of attention, including being ranked by ESPN as one of the most memorable college mascot names.

"Stormy Petrels, that's quite a name," he admitted.

Last season, Bennett virtually carried the Valdosta Wildcats. The team won nine games -- six of them won by Bennett -- and made the playoffs on the final play of the final game of the regular season (a 5-4 win over Tift County where Bennett scored the winning run and, yes, was the winning pitcher).

He also was the team's leading hitter, playing center field when not pitching. There was no doubt who Valdosta's MVP was last year.

"Austin Bennett was a very important member of our baseball team last year," Shuman said. "Actually, he was for all three years he was on varsity. I wish I still had him for another year."

"We're very proud of Austin, and happy for him that this opportunity came up, and we wish him the best at Oglethorpe," Shuman added.

Bennett came up to the VHS varsity midway through his sophomore year and quickly became the team's No. 2 pitcher behind fellow southpaw Stephen Newman. As a junior, he and righty Bond Crosby were the team's top two pitchers, and he also started in center field. The last two seasons, he was able to play for his father, Johnny, who was a volunteer assistant for Shuman.

Like many left-handers, Bennett's repertoire includes a real good curveball, as well as a change-up and a fastball that "keeps you honest," in his words.

Bennett will have a good shot at playing as a true freshman. He will be the only left-hander on Oglethorpe's pitching staff and will also be looked at in the outfield.

Oglethorpe is a Division III school located near downtown Atlanta.

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