Photo by Brian Paglia / Dutchtown pitcher Riley Presnell has been in the Bulldogs starting rotation since his freshman season, but now he’s the ace of a team that’s in first place in Region 4-AAAA.
HAMPTON — Riley Presnell wasn’t supposed to pitch left-handed. Everything else in life he uses his right hand — writing, swinging a bat, shaking hands. But in those first days of throwing in the front yard, Presnell’s father could tell something was not right.
“He tried to let me throw right-handed,” Presnell said. “It just wouldn’t work. I started throwing left-handed and got better and better.”
Here is Presnell now at 6-foot-1, 170 pounds, throwing fastballs in the mid-80s, flummoxing batters with his knuckleball, helping Dutchtown baseball make a remarkable turnaround from near-worst to officially first through the early part of the Bulldogs’ region schedule.
Dutchtown enters today’s game at Upson-Lee at 6 p.m., at 7-3 overall and 6-1 in the region, a game ahead of four other teams. Another win and the Bulldogs will match their win total for the past two seasons — combined.
Presnell has been an impact pitcher ever since he transferred from Eagle’s Landing Christian to Dutchtown going into ninth grade. He immediately became the team’s No. 2 starter and has been the Bulldogs’ No. 1 pitcher the past two seasons.
But Presnell and the rest of Dutchtown came of age in Region 3-AAAA, one of the strongest regions in the state regardless of classification. Dutchtown would often see 90 -mile-per-hour fastballs and Division I players. The Bulldogs would go from Harris County to Jones County, McIntosh to Northgate, Ola to Starr’s Mill, Union Grove to Whitewater.
Those teams combined for a .649 winning percentage last season.
Dutchtown went 3-22 and 5-20 the past two seasons, respectively.
“Last year there was no break,” Dutchtown coach Michael Breedlove said.
“We were playing real hard teams,” Bulldogs junior Kahlil Parks said, “teams that were winning state championships.”
Said senior Jesse Christensen: “Playing those harder teams makes these teams seem a lot easier.”
The losing grated on Presnell too. At 14, he was playing with the 16-under OTC travel team out of Henry County and pitching five no-hit innings in his first start. Last season, he broke the school record for strikeouts with 67 despite the strong competition. This past summer, Presnell pitched with the East Cobb Braves, which finished its season as the top-ranked travel team in the country, and flourished, going 11-0 with a 0.72 ERA.
But the rest of Dutchtown didn’t make as smooth a transition as Presnell following a 2010 senior-laden roster that missed a third-straight state playoff appearance by one game.
“It’s been tough the past two years,” Presnell said. “We don’t like to lose.”
That transition’s been expedited this season, and the Bulldogs give much of the credit to the travails of the past two seasons.
“Last year, it was just a battle,” Breedlove said. “This year some of the these guys who are pitching have finally grown up. ... They’re not in awe.”
“Our confidence has grown,” Parks said.
So has their skill. Parks and senior Jeremy Arrington provide depth behind Presnell in the starting rotation, while Chase Rudkin, Alex Johnson and Kendrick Winston form a stable bullpen. Junior infielder Danny Vargas moved in from New York and has helped stabilize Dutchtown’s defense up the middle along with Michael Warren in center, Sam Kim catching and Christensen at second.
“Everybody was more mature when they came back [this season],” Christensen said.
Presnell’s felt the impact of his teammates’ maturation, but also of Dutchtown’s rise into contention.
“A lot of people want to come after you when you’re the guy that people assume to be the ace of the county,” Presnell said. “I like to have that pressure on me.”
Dutchtown’s no stranger to pressure this season, and the Bulldogs have seen both sides of it — the bad in close losses to South Cobb (5-3) and Locust Grove (8-7) and the good in come-from-behind wins against Spalding (5-4) and Griffin (4-3).
After the past few seasons, Presnell and Dutchtown have about experienced it all — except a winning season.
But the Bulldogs’ ace feels that’s about to change.
“I don’t think we’re that team that’s going to get scared,” Presnell said. “We’re not going to have our backs against the wall.”