June 9, 2013

All-Area Baseball: Northwest's Middleton led the way in exceptional year for Bruins

By Chris Whitfield

— The expectations for any three-year starter heading into his final high school baseball season are typically big.

But take that senior and add a substantial pedigree in a game he has been around his entire life, and the expectations from many outside observers probably get a little bigger. Now factor in that this is an athlete whose father not only played college baseball but is the head coach of the son’s high school team.

For some players, the situation could understandably create pressure. But it never limited Northwest Whitfield second baseman Brady Middleton, and the 2013 season he put together proved it.

“I don’t know if playing for my dad is as much pressure as people might think, but through him, I know when I go to the next level it is going to be harder,” said the younger Middleton, who will follow in Bruins coach Todd Middleton’s footsteps by playing at Berry College in Rome. “In high school, he pushed me, but that is the reaction as a dad and a coach. It was nothing more than that. On the field, I felt like I was always treated like one of his players."

His best player.

The Bruins went 23-8, won the Region 7-4A title for the first time in six years — it had also been that long since their last appearance in the state playoffs — and made the deepest state run among local teams. Along the way, Middleton was undoubtedly the best all-around player in Northwest’s lineup.

From the No. 2 spot in the batting order, Middleton led area hitters with a .458 batting average — he was even better strictly against region competition (.489) and in eight postseason games (.480) — and he finished the year with two home runs, 11 doubles and 17 RBIs while scoring 35 runs. Defensively, he sported a .946 fielding percentage and turned 19 double plays with shortstop Diego Peralta.

“He isn’t flashy, and nothing he does really stands out as far as eye-popping, but the consistency along with the baseball IQ are big pluses for him,” coach Middleton said of his son. “He has always been pretty solid and consistent at the plate. Defensively, the last two years have been great as far as double plays with those two guys. It has been a great weapon for us.”

For his performance while leading his team to a successful season, Middleton has been selected The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Baseball Player of the Year. He is joined on the All-Area Baseball Team by the Bruins’ Edwin Hernandez, Seth Pierce, Brandon Smith and Andy Whisenant; Christian Heritage’s Tre Mason, Michael McKinney and Jake Stokes; Dalton’s Brandon Dale; North Murray’s Jared Campbell; and Southeast Whitfield’s Blake Foster. All-Area honorees are chosen by the newspaper’s sports staff based on input from local coaches.

While the younger Middleton may have felt like just another player on the roster, his father said it was a bigger struggle on his end.

“Yeah, it is hard to be dad and coach,” he said. “I guess I tried to make sure that I left everything at the field. There wasn’t too much that we talked about at home or off the field. I definitely expected more out of him and put more pressure on him. He definitely got yelled at more than anyone, but he handled it well.”

Dalton coach Shane Ramsey was a longtime assistant at Northwest before taking over the Catamounts’ program in the offseason, and going against Brady wasn’t something he looked forward to.

“Brady is like a son to me,” Ramsey said. “I have spent time and watched him and seen him stay at the field for another hour after practice. It is the expectation level that he has, and not necessarily the expectation level Todd has for him. He turned himself into the best player in the area ... all through hard work."

Said coach Middleton, “For me, it wasn’t too bad until the last game, and the banquet was impossible. I didn’t say much at the banquet. I couldn’t hold it together. I don’t think that it really hit me until that last series.”

But the season was enjoyable for both father and son. In 2012, with their lineup a year away from hitting its peak, the Bruins played in a region largely made up of Atlanta schools. Northwest remained in contention for the state playoffs until late in the schedule, but finished with a 15-11 record and didn’t make it out of the regular season.

Just the same, Brady believed he and his teammates benefited from the experience.

“We knew the caliber of the competition we were going against,” he said. “The losses weren’t very enjoyable, but we knew we were playing some of the best teams in the state in our region last year. That gave us some confidence. Last year wasn’t a terrible season. We knew there were some games we should have won. But seeing that level of play let us know that we could compete with anyone coming into this year.”

This season, because of Georgia High School Association reclassification and region realignment, Northwest’s league included more familiar programs like Dalton and Southeast. The Bruins suffered just one Sub-region 7B-4A loss — in the final series of the year, versus LaFayette, after the sub-region’s No. 1 seed had already been secured — and hosted Cass for the Region 7-4A championship. After dropping the first game of the best-of-three series, Northwest battled back and won the final two for the title. The Bruins topped Grady in the first round of the Class 4A state playoffs, again rallying after losing the opener in the best-of-three series, before being swept by Stephens County in the second round.

“You have a lot more focus as a senior, and it takes on a lot more significance,” Brady said. “The most fun part of this season was being in the dugout that last season with all of these guys ... the friendships you have built over the years are the moments you will remember the most.”

Now, he turns his attention to the next phase of his playing career. While he knows his father will still be part of his baseball life, he will miss the close relationship on the field.

“It means a lot, considering this is my last year and I am headed to college,” he said of playing for his dad. “I was able to do what I wanted to do and accomplish the things I wanted to accomplish this year. Basically, I am excited to keep on playing and have the opportunity to go to college.”

Here’s a look at the rest of the all-area lineup:

Seth Pierce, Northwest, pitcher: Selected as The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Player of the Year in 2012 after a dominating freshman season, Pierce was similarly solid this year, even though his record suffered as he finished 6-5 with three saves. Still, he had a 1.77 ERA and struck out 98 batters in 71 innings.

“He didn’t have the record that he had last year, but four of his losses, we didn’t help him out with just one run in each of those losses,” coach Middleton said. “He had some tough luck, but he was still very dominant throughout region play. Once we got into postseason, he matched up with some good pitchers. He is just going to get better.”

Tre Mason, Christian Heritage, catcher: The Lions’ leading hitter, Mason blossomed as a senior, driving in 17 RBIs and hitting .405 for the year. He was even better in the final 10 games of the season, when he hit .500 and helped Christian Heritage earn a spot in the Class A private school state playoffs. A four-year member of the varsity team who also had a strong arm behind the plate, Mason earned his first all-area selection after garnering honorable mention each of the past two seasons.

“He always had one of the prettiest swings on our team and was solid behind the plate,” Stokes said. “I reminded him and told him to trust his swing. The next game, he hit a grand slam. He was our best hitter the rest of the year. I continue to be real blessed in knowing he had a very satisfying season. He went out knowing he played his best.”

Michael McKinney, Christian Heritage, first baseman: Versatile is a perfect description of McKinney, who has been a standout in baseball, basketball and football the past two years and filled more than one role on the diamond. In addition to playing solidly at first base as a senior, he went 6-4 with a 2.67 ERA on the mound. At the plate, he had a slugging percentage of .540 with six doubles and two homers. This is the second straight all-area selection for McKinney — he earned honorable mention as a freshman and sophomore — who recently signed with Georgia College and State University.

“Michael will be missed by our whole school,” coach Noah Stokes said. “He had an impact in football, basketball and baseball. He is a quality kid on and off the field. He pitched great for us, hit great for us. There wasn’t a lot more that he could do and we are going to miss him for sure. His leadership will be hard things to come by and replace.”

Edwin Hernandez, Northwest, third baseman: Just a sophomore, Hernandez established himself as one of the area’s top fielders and hitters. He hit .393 with five home runs, 12 doubles and 40 RBIs to secure his first all-area selection after earning honorable mention a year ago..

“We expected it,” coach Middleton said of Hernandez’s eye-popping numbers. “He was one of our leading hitters last year as a freshman and showed some power. He is definitely clutch. As he learns to be more patient and learns what he can do and learn his potential, he will only get better."

Blake Foster, Southeast, shortstop: With the passing of each season, Foster’s athletic résumé becomes more and more impressive. A junior this past school year, he has been on both the all-area baseball and football teams every year since his freshman season. Smooth and sure-handed at shortstop and explosive at the plate, Foster continues to impress. This spring, he was the Raiders’ leading hitter with a .394 batting average while driving in 20 runs and scoring 28. His five home runs also tied for the lead among area hitters.

He also earned a spot on the All-Region 7-4A Team, as picked by that league’s coaches.

“He’s one of the best all-around baseball players I’ve coached,” Southeast coach Brad Lofton said. “He’s one of the best hitters and fielders. He also helped us out on the mound. ... He’s just lights out at everything he does.”

Brandon Smith, Northwest, outfielder: Also known as the center fielder with the Duck Dynasty beard, opposing teams knew the senior’s glove was where gappers went to die. With speed, great linear judgment and a strong arm, Smith would have made the team on his defense alone, but he also scored 42 runs from his leadoff spot with an on-base percentage of .440. This is his first all-area selection.

“If it was over his head, it wasn’t catchable and was off the fence or out of the park,” coach Middleton said. “I think one went off of his glove all year, and I couldn’t believe he got to that one. If not the best, one of the best center fielders I have seen. Definitely the best I have coached.”

Brandon Dale, Dalton, outfielder: Dale could have played just about any position he was asked to, and he was the Cats’ top all-around threat while holding down a spot in the outfield when he wasn’t on the mound. The senior went 4-3 with a 2.56 ERA, batted .380 and led the team in RBIs to earn his first all-area selection. Ramsey said Dale’s impact on Dalton’s year — the Cats went 11-14 but competed in a Region 7-4A playoff series for a spot at state — can’t be stressed enough.

“It goes back to him. ... We don’t win 11 games without Brandon Dale,” Ramsey said. “He was not only our best pitcher, he was at times our best offensive player. Defensively, he was one of the best defensive outfielders I have coached. His athleticism alone won several games for us.”

Jake Stokes, Christian Heritage, outfielder: Like the Player of the Year, Stokes is a coach’s son, and like Middleton he set himself apart at the plate and in the field. The junior hit .366, led the Lions in both RBIs (26) and total bases and was more than solid with his defensive presence in center field. This is his first all-area selection after earning honorable mention the past two years.

“We moved him to center, and he struggled a little bit, but by the end of the year, he was using his speed and finding his value out there,” coach Stokes said. “I have seen a lot of maturity in him. You can’t separate those two roles — I am always Dad, I am never coach to him. I always try to have other coaches say things to him . It is a dynamic that you don’t have with any other player.”

Andy Whisenant, Northwest, utility: Whether he was in the outfield or on the mound, Whisenant usually delivered for the Bruins. The junior was the team’s No. 3 starting pitcher and finished with a 7-1 record and 3.84 ERA. He was part of a rotation that included Pierce and Wade Terrell, and all three played in the outfield when not pitching, versatility that coach Middleton said made his job easier. This is the junior’s first all-area appearance after earning honorable mention a year ago.

“He is just a good athlete,” Middleton said. “He has played just about everywhere. He played short when he was growing up, is athletic, can run, has a strong arm, and on the mound he did a great job for us, too.”

Jared Campbell, North Murray, designated hitter: A standout on the gridiron and diamond, Campbell was considering playing football in college until he signed earlier this year with Young Harris for baseball. It should pay off if his senior year — he caught and pitched for the Mountaineers — is any indication. Campbell finished with a .413 batting average with 16 RBIs, six doubles and three homers to earn his first all-area selection after earning honorable mention as a sophomore.

“He’s like the coach on the field, to be honest,” North Murray coach Steve Granger said. “When he’s back there, he is directing people on what to do and where to be. Behind the plate, he’s going to block the ball and get in front of some stuff.”

Honorable mention: Christian Heritage — Ian Robbins (So., SS), Spencer Robbins (So., UT); Coahulla Creek — Zack Glines (So., P), Braiden Jacobs (Jr., P), Scout Plott (Sr., C); Dalton — Grant Sane (Jr., 3B), Matt Wells (Sr., OF); Murray County — Nick Stiles (Jr., 3B); North Murray — Aaron Granger (Jr., UT), Jared Goswick (Sr., UT), Cole Vaughn (So., 1B); Northwest — A.J. Orozco (Sr., DH), Diego Peralta (Jr., SS), Wade Terrell (Sr., P); Southeast — Devin Gentry (Jr., OF), Abram Stanley (Sr., UT), Jose Vargas (Sr., C).