February 16, 2014

Area baseball previews: Season kicks off today for local teams

The Daily Citizen
sports@daltoncitizen.com

— There was snow on the ground just a few days ago in northwest Georgia, but there will be baseball on the diamond this week.

Today is the first day Georgia High School Association baseball teams can open the season. While the action is limited among schools in Murray and Whitfield counties today, all local teams will be in action soon.

Here’s a glance at the upcoming season for all seven local programs:



Christian Heritage



Last year, in their first season of GHSA competition, the Lions reached the Class A private school playoffs. However, they were swept on the road in the opening-round best-of-three series by Macon’s First Presbyterian Day School, which entered the postseason ranked third in the classification.

The Lions and coach Noah Stokes want more in 2014.

“Last year was a fun year,” Stokes said. “This year we want a championship effort — that’s what we’re hanging our hats on — with every rep in practice and every pitch in a game. We want our kids to give effort and be mentally and physically tough enough to sustain that effort.”

Stokes has seven returning starters from last year’s team, which went 12-13 overall and 9-8 in Sub-region 6A-A, but Michael McKinney and Tre Mason — both selections to The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Baseball Team in 2013 — were lost to graduation. McKinney signed with NCAA Division II program Georgia College and State University after hitting .301 and compiling a 6-4 record on the mound with a 2.67 ERA. Mason, a catcher, led the Lions offensively with a .405 batting average.

“With all the guys we have returning, we’re more mature with playoff experience and hope that will carry over into this season,” said Stokes, whose Lions open the season with a 5:30 p.m. game Thursday at North Murray.

Jake Stokes, the coach’s son and another all-area selection who batted .366 and led the Lions with 26 RBIs as a junior, will start in center field with Junior Chase Tidwell in left. Juniors Sam Sikes and Brady Souther are competing to start in right. The left-handed Souther also figures into the team’s pitching plans.

Senior Nich Bartley, an all-state receiver in football, will play second base and pitch. The Robbins twins, juniors Ian and Spencer, play shortstop and first base, respectively. Sophomore Tyson Cooper, who has played shortstop and center field, is replacing Mason as the Lions’ catcher, his natural position.

Senior Trevor Brown, a three-year starter at quarterback for Christian Heritage, returns to the diamond after sitting out the 2013 season. Senior Chandler Coley, who sat out the football and baseball seasons after transferring from Dalton High School, is handling third base and can pitch as well.

Sophomore left-handers Jonathan Lewallen and 6-foot-6-inch Jantzen Smith could also be contributors on the mound.

“It’s good to have that much pitching competition,” Stokes said. “We have to find out how they best fit in the rotation.”



Coahulla Creek



With regular state title contenders Cartersville and Ringgold routinely grabbing state playoff berths, the other six teams in Region 5-3A – including Coahulla Creek – have to battle furiously to finish among the league’s top four and extend their seasons.

Cartersville went 30-7 and won the Class 3A state championship last season. Ringgold has made four straight appearances in the state playoffs and lost in the title series in 2010.

“It’s a very challenging region,” said Coahulla Creek’s Michael Bolen, who has been the Colts’ head coach since the school opened in 2011.

Bolen took the Colts to the 2012 Class 2A playoffs in their inaugural season, losing to Hart County in the first round, but the team’s diamond fortunes dropped off in 2013 as they went 10-14 overall and 6-8 in the region, missing out on the state playoffs.  

Coahulla Creek, which opens its season with a 5:30 p.m. Friday game at Christian Heritage, returns four starters from last season — pitcher Braiden Jacobs, third baseman Zack Glines, second baseman Michael Ward and right fielder Erick Dominguez.

The right-handed Jacobs, a senior, is the Colts’ No. 1 pitcher, and when not on the mound he will play in the outfield. Jacobs batted better than .400 a year ago, Bolen said. Glines is a two-year starter at third, but the junior right-hander is also the team’s No. 2 arm in the rotation. Ward, a senior, has started all three seasons under Bolen and is one of the most versatile players on the roster — he is also the potential No. 3 pitcher and can play center field and third base as well. In addition to playing right field, Dominguez, a senior, is battling Ward for the third spot in the rotation.

Junior Jackson Sheppard is moving behind the plate to replace Scout Plott, who signed with Chattanooga State Community College, while Levi Wilson will be in the outfield after not playing baseball last season.

The Colts are bracing for a rugged schedule that includes Calhoun, Dalton, Northwest Whitfield, as well as challenging matchups against Tennessee powers St. Benedict of Memphis, Baylor and Boyd-Buchanan of Chattanooga and White County in the Scenic City Classic.

Bolen is confident the Colts have the potential to return to postseason play, and their non-region slate is designed to be a springboard to getting ready for region competition and what they hope is a run to the state playoffs.

“Our region is so tough you can’t hide from it,” Bolen said. “And we don’t back down from competition. We go find it.”



Dalton



The Catamounts’ overall record in 2013 — 11-14 — wasn’t impressive, but the team was extremely competitive in Sub-region 7B-4A, going 10-5 and earning a spot in one of Region 7-4A’s crossover matchups with a state playoffs berth on the line.

The Cats were swept by River Ridge in that best-of-three series, but in coach Shane Ramsey’s second season leading the program, Dalton’s roster will have both experience and youth. The Cats have two seniors — Jake Roberts and Grant Sane — among their six returning starters, but plenty of sophomores and freshmen will play key roles.

Roberts, a first baseman/designated hitter, and Grant Sane, who played third base last season but has been moved to catcher, will anchor the heart of the batting order. Other returning starters are junior center fielder Tyler Britton, junior first baseman/designated hitter Jase Chastain, junior third baseman Caleb Hill and junior shortstop Charlie Martin. Sane’s .323 batting average and three home runs were team highs last season, and his 19 RBIs tied Hill for the Cats’ best. Hill batted .286 last year, while Roberts finished with a .274 average.

“I like those guys a lot,” Ramsey said. “They have been with me for a year now, and they are guys that I believe in. They are guys that I have talked about being leaders, doing it the right way. We have talked a lot about just doing your job, and when the individual is focused on (his) job, we will compete well as a team.”

Chastain is coming off surgery after breaking his leg during the football season — he was a co-starter at quarterback — and even though he isn’t at 100 percent yet, Ramsey said, “75 percent of Jase is faster than most kids.” Hunter Nelson, another senior, is back after missing last year with a shoulder injury.

“This year will be a little more consistent on offense for us,” Ramsey said. “We can play small ball at times, and we still have the guys that can swing for some power. I am anxious to see how our younger players respond to it being varsity. It doesn’t matter how much travel ball and competition that you have faced, you just have to see how they respond to situations.”

While the Cats have experience in the field and at the plate, they have virtually none on the mound. The returning pitchers have logged a grand total of 18 innings pitched at the varsity level. Roberts has the most experience, pitching 7 1/3 innings in relief last year. Senior Dakota Tankersley and sophomore Jackson Bell will be relied upon as starters while Sam Steps, Tucker Sumner and Chase Westfall develop as part of the rotation. Roberts, Blake Evans, Vinnie Vega and freshmen Maddox Houghton and Cole Shelton will pitch in relief.

“I feel this year we will be a little more athletic in spots,” Ramsey said. “Our pitching staff is extremely young as far as experience and it will be interesting to see how they handle mistakes. Last year when a mistake happened, we let it snowball. We are trying to move past that.”

Dalton opens its season Feb. 24 at Christian Heritage.



Murray County



Becoming the Indians’ head coach in the offseason gave Joel Brown a chance to reunite with some familiar faces.

“I had been the head coach at (Murray County feeder program Gladden Middle School) until 2010,” Brown said. “When the high school position opened up, my old players were all over me to take it. I had coached a lot of them. I applied and got the job.”

Brown replaces Jeff Lanning, who went 11-54 in three seasons leading the Indians, with the best showing a 10-11 mark in 2011. Brown and Lanning were both interviewed by then-athletic director Mitch Holcomb for the job in the summer of 2010 after Jason Lanham resigned following nine seasons as Murray County’s head coach to take over at Trion High School.

Now that he finally has his opportunity to lead the Indians, Brown faces a tremendous challenge. Last year, Murray County failed to win a game, suffering through 26 contests, including a dozen in Region 7-2A play.

“There is no reason that we shouldn’t win some ballgames,” Brown said. “I think that we’ll be competitive.”

What does Brown consider Murray County’s strength?

“Our senior leadership,” he said. “They’ve played a lot of years. They’ve gone through a lot of adversity. They all feel a sense of optimism. They can see the need for improvement. There is also an outstanding work ethic.”

Six starters return, including a trio of seniors — first baseman/pitcher Jagger Childers, pitcher Damon Roberts and third baseman Nick Stiles. Roberts is the team’s No. 1 starter on the mound.

Wyatt Stuckey and Noah Price, a pair of sophomore left-handers, also logged starting time on the mound a year ago; both could also spend time at first base. Sophomore second baseman Hunter Ary is the other returning starter.

Petee Walden, another sophomore, probably will start at shortstop, while either sophomore Alex Youngquist or freshman Nathaniel Whaley will start behind the plate. Center fielder Austin Carnes is an imposing 6-foot-3, 215-pound sophomore.

“Austin has a lot of potential,” Brown said. “He could be a big deal in a couple of years.”

Austin Gossett, a junior, likely will flank Carnes in left field, while sophomore Eric Blaylock has the edge in right field. He is being pushed by senior Austin Pearson and sophomore Jave Adame.

“If we play solid defense and get good pitching, we should be fine,” Brown said. “Our hitting should be OK.”

Brown cited Calhoun and Dade County as the favorites for the title in Region 7-2A. Calhoun has won a state title three times since 2000, with the most recent championship in 2010.

“Even when Calhoun is average for them, they’re good,” Brown said.

Murray County’s season opens at 5 p.m. today at Trion.



North Murray



David Redmond is confident his first year leading the Mountaineers can be a productive one.

“We have a good chance to have the program’s first winning season,” he said. “Our goal is to make the state playoffs.”

Steve Granger oversaw the program from the beginning — the Mountaineers played a junior varsity schedule in 2010, North Murray’s first school year, before beginning varsity play in 2011 — until resigning after last season to take over the school’s softball program. Redmond was an assistant on Grangers’s staff each of the past two seasons.

“We missed the state playoffs each time by one game,” Redmond said. “We have been so close.”

The Mountaineers went 9-14 overall but 6-8 in Region 5-3A last year.

Aaron Granger, son of the former coach, provides senior leadership as a pitcher/shortstop. The 6-1, 165-pounder has already signed a scholarship with NCAA Division II program Carson-Newman.

“Aaron is a leader in everything that he does on the field,” Redmond said. “Whether it’s pitching, hitting, putting down the sacrifice bunt or playing as a middle infielder, he is a leader by example.”

As North Murray’s No. 1 pitcher a year ago, Granger had a 4-2 record, an impressive 1.55 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 36 innings. He also batted .384 with 14 RBIs.

Cole Vaughn, a junior lefty who can pitch and play center field, provides a quality one-two punch with Granger in the rotation. Vaughn went 2-0 with a 2.19 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 22 innings in 2013, and the 6-2, 185-pounder is also the top returning hitter after batting .397 a year ago.

“Cole has a lot of the attributes that Aaron has,” Redmond said of the 6-2, 185-pounder. “Three or four colleges already have shown an interest in him.”

Lake Burris, a junior first baseman, will be prominent again after batting .343 a year ago. Caleb Campbell, who gives the Mountaineers a fourth returning starter, figures to man left field.

Replacing four-year starter Jared Campbell as the catcher — he now plays for Young Harris College — will be key, and freshman Blake Davis and junior Alex Viars are the leading candidates. Austin Nichols, a junior, has the inside track at second base. Freshman Brady Frazier can play either third base or shortstop, while Davis and Viars are in the mix as middle infielders.

Mason Pittman and Dakota Suttles, a pair of juniors, could start in center field and right field, respectively.

“Our defense should be our strength,” Redmond said. “On offense, we will play small ball while manufacturing runs.”

North Murray’s season opens at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday as Union County visits.



Northwest Whitfield



The Bruins made 2013 a notable season by winning the Region 7-4A title and advancing to the state playoffs for the first time since 2007.

Now they’ll aim to make it two in a row in both those endeavors — and they bring back the arms to make a case as the region’s favorites.

Seth Pierce, The Daily Citizen’s 2012 All-Area Baseball Player of the Year, returns for his junior season as the Bruins’ ace. He finished 6-5 a year ago with a 1.77 ERA and three saves as Northwest went 23-8 and advanced to the second round of the state playoffs. Andy Whisenant, a senior, is another returning pitcher and fellow outfielder alongside Pierce.

In the sub-divided region’s format, in which sub-region teams play one another three times in a week, Northwest is looking for a reliable No. 3 starter. Bruins coach Todd Middleton mentioned juniors Phillip Hammonds and Logan Hilton, plus senior Aaron Ball, as options.

“I think pitching is going to be the strength,” Middleton said. “Our defense remains to be seen. We had a really good defense last year.”

Returning on the left side of the infield are senior shortstop Diego Peralta and junior third baseman Edwin Hernandez, who hit .393 with five home runs and 40 RBIs a year ago.

The team graduated The Daily Citizen’s 2013 All-Area Baseball Player of the Year, second baseman Brady Middleton (coach Middleton’s son), who signed with Berry College. Also lost to graduation were first baseman Kyle Brock — whose leaping dive to score in the winner-takes-all third game of the Region 7-4A championship series versus Cass remains one of the memorable moments from Northwest’s 2013 campaign — catcher A.J. Orozco and center fielder Brandon Smith.

Middleton said first and second base are “up for grabs,” as are spots in the outfield not occupied by Pierce or Whisenant. Caleb Shiflett, who had a successful first season as Northwest’s starting quarterback this past fall, has taken over behind the plate.

Northwest finished last year’s sub-region schedule with a 14-1 record, losing only to LaFayette after having already clinched a first-place finish in 7B-4A. The next-best showing in the sub-region was an 11-4 mark for Heritage-Catoosa. Dalton finished 10-5 in league games.

“Heritage is going to be really good again,” Middleton said. “They have a lot of guys returning. Southeast (Whitfield) will be good. Dalton will be solid — young but solid. I don’t know much about LaFayette or Ridgeland but I don’t think anyone will run away with it this year. I think it’ll be a tight race. You can’t go into the last series with too many losses. I think the top spot in the sub-region will have four losses or less.”

Northwest begins the season at home Feb. 25 versus Christian Heritage.



Southeast Whitfield



The Raiders had no trouble scoring runs last season. The problem was allowing as many — or more — runs.

Southeast coach Brad Lofton feels as good about his lineup and much better about the team’s arms entering the 2014 schedule.

With senior Rhett Harper returning as the team’s ace after missing most of last year because of a knee injury suffered during the 2012 football season, plus juniors Chase Jenkins and Noah Ramsey as the other primary starters, there is a lot more depth on the Southeast pitching staff.

“This year, we’ve got seven kids who could get on the mound and throw strikes,” he said. “In years past, it was three. Chase Jenkins and Noah Ramsey both give us seven innings per start.”

Ty Pendley, a sophomore, transferred from Northwest and will serve as a middle reliever, outfielder and second baseman. Blake Foster, who hit .394 with 28 runs, 20 RBIs and five homers last season as he earned a spot on The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Baseball Team, returns at shortstop and could be used as the team’s closer on the mound. With Foster and Harper in the middle of the order and senior leadoff hitter Abram Stanley returning as a do-it-all utility player — he could play any one of four positions depending on who is pitching — Southeast could be an offensive threat again.

“The hitting part I’m not worried about,” Lofton said, noting the Raiders won five of their final six games last season to finish fifth in Sub-region 7B-4A and 9-17 overall. “Offense isn’t an issue. We’re going to hit the ball.”

Justin Cooper, a junior, replaces Jose Vargas — who earned honorable mention for the all-area lineup — at catcher. Sophomore Colter Faith can play second base, left field or center field.

The Raiders went 3-12 in the sub-region a year ago and missed out on a spot in one of Region 7-4A’s crossover series with state playoff implications. During sub-region play, Southeast won twice against Ridgeland but dropped two of three to LaFayette and was swept by Dalton, Heritage and Northwest.

“We could have our best year we’ve ever had,” Lofton said, adding expectations were high last season before the injury to Harper, one of the school’s best athletes in recent history who has played in the nationally known East Cobb Baseball League.

“This year, the expectations are about the same. ... Northwest is going to be a tough team to beat. I expect the series to be real competitive like it was last year.”