The figurative sun is about to rise on another high school baseball season, whether or not there’s much literal warmth for the boys of spring.
Georgia High School Association baseball teams were allowed to begin practice on Jan. 28 and can hold their first official regular-season contests starting today. Although the area forecast doesn’t have temperatures rising above the 50s until late in the week, several teams will begin play this week, and all will be in action on the diamond by next week.
One notable change this season is that all seven local high school baseball teams will compete in the GHSA, with Christian Heritage joining the group after previously playing in the Georgia Independent School Association. Reclassification has meant that most teams will be in a different region this season, and even for those in a region with the same name, the company is different.
No matter how cold it might be as Christian Heritage, Coahulla Creek, Dalton, Murray County, North Murray, Northwest Whitfield and Southeast Whitfield start their seasons, they’re all aiming to still be playing when the temperatures are much warmer. The GHSA postseason begins May 3, with the finals wrapping up later in the month.
With only two of those teams making the postseason a year ago, there’s little doubt more area programs hope to be in the state-bound crowd for 2013.
Here’s a glance at each local team:
Lions coach Noah Stokes’ team is plunging into its first season of GHSA competition with what likely is the toughest single-game challenge in the program’s history.
Christian Heritage — which ended its five-year run in the GISA by losing a best-of-three state quarterfinals series with Thomasville’s Brookwood last spring — will make a long trip to the southeastern corner of the state today. The Lions will be in Folkston to open the season with a 5:45 p.m. matchup at Charlton County, last year’s Class A state runner-up.
Charlton finished 30-6 in 2012 after losing to Providence Christian in the championship series.
“That’s where I went to high school,” said Stokes, whose Lions were 18-8 a year ago. “We’re absolutely looking forward to playing in the GHSA and we’re going to see right away where we stand.”
The Lions will compete this year in Sub-region 6A-A, along with Darlington, Excel Christian, Gordon Lee, Mt. Zion-Carroll and Trion.
“GISA was a good brand of baseball, but didn’t have the depth of competition GHSA will provide,” Stokes said. “Our region will be tough and we believe we can make it stronger.”
Christian Heritage is led once again by Michael McKinney, who was selected to The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Baseball Team as a junior last season after batting .301, driving in 29 runs and slugging three home runs.
On the mound, McKinney posted a 2.17 ERA with 59 strikeouts in 58 innings, strengthening his pick as a utility player for the all-area lineup. He was also chosen to the GISA’s Class 2A All-State team.
The Lions also return three players who earned honorable mention spots on last year’s all-area squad — junior outfielder Jake Stokes (the coach’s son), senior catcher Tre Mason and sophomore pitcher/first baseman Spencer Robbins, who led the Lions in hitting as a freshman.
Robbins’ twin brother, Ian, is a middle infielder who will be sidelined by a shoulder injury to start the season. Like McKinney, Stokes and Mason, the Robbins brothers were all-region choices in 2012.
Junior infielder/pitcher Nich Bartley and sophomore pitcher/outfielder Brady Souther should also make solid contributions to this year’s team.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2012 season was the success of the first-year Colts, who advanced to the Class 2A state playoffs with a team that lived off of solid pitching and point-to-point offense.
Coahulla Creek coach Michael Bolen’s team graduated three starters, and even though the Colts are moving up to Class 3A this year — and into a region loaded with powerhouse programs — the expectations of the Colts’ initial initial success have hopes high in Varnell.
“We just go by the philosophy of ‘Prepare, don’t hope,’” Bolen said. “It has become our expectation. We prepare and approach practice like that every day. We are playing in one of the top regions in all of Georgia with Cartersville and Ringgold and their baseball traditions. It is a challenge, but it is a challenge we are looking forward to.”
While Bolen will have to replace his outfield, the Colts return plenty of experience and top players where it matters most. Pitcher Braiden Jacobs leads the rotation, returning after a sophomore campaign in which he was 6-1 with a 1.18 ERA to lead local pitchers. Tucker Sheram returns on the mound as well, while shortstop Blake Phillips will see time in the No. 3 spot in the rotation.
Behind the plate, Scout Plott returns to the middle of the lineup after hitting .435 with 17 runs, 12 RBIs and eight doubles last year. Senior Cody Wood moves to first after spending time as a designated hitter last season.
One thing that hasn’t changed will be Coahulla Creek’s offensive philosophy. Bolen said no surprising power hitters have moved in, so the Colts, who open the season today with a 5:30 p.m. game against visiting LaFayette, will again rely on station-to-station baseball.
“Basically what we have is a lot of different utility guys who have to wear a lot of different hats and fill a lot of different roles,” Bolen said. “I don’t expect any of the guys to be the hero. We have to play by the team concept. We are not the team that is going to overpower anyone.
“We have to play as a team and continue to do the things we do. We take pride in execution. Some people call it ‘small ball,’ but we just look at it as good baseball.”
The area’s newest baseball coach isn’t all that new.
Catamounts coach Shane Ramsey — he takes over for Bobby Brotherton, who led the team for five seasons — was a baseball assistant for the past nine years at Northwest Whitfield, where he was also the softball coach from 2009 to 2011.
Despite coming from a rival school, Ramsey said there was no awkwardness when he took the job in August.
“They were great because they were familiar with me,” Ramsey said of his new players. “The chemistry’s been really good. That’s a battle I didn’t have to fight. They were familiar with how I coached, and their excitement and enthusiasm really fed off that.”
Ramsey said he has found Dalton a “great situation” because the Cats had fundamentals emphasized to them by Brotherton and a tradition of past success is something he can point to even though the program hasn’t made the state playoffs since a four-year run from 2007 to 2010. The Cats went 8-18 last season.
What Ramsey worked on in the offseason was confidence, competitiveness and accountability. When one player didn’t meet the target time for a sprint, everyone started over.
“These kids want to work, want to get better, want to win, and they’ve bought into my program,” Ramsey said.
Eight of the players expected to start or platoon this season have had notable varsity experience, Ramsey said, and he’s high on his rotation of Brandon Dale, Will Erwin and Michael O’Brien. They’re supported by a bullpen that includes Omar Lara, Hunter Nelson, Jake Roberts and Chase Westfall.
At least early on, Saul Lara and Dakota Tankersley will share catching duties. Roberts (first base), Caleb Hill (second base), Charlie Martin (shortstop) and Grant Sane (third base) complete the infield.
Who’s on the mound will factor into who starts in the outfield. Erwin and Jase Chastain are in right, Dale and Tyler Britton are in center and O’Brien and Matt Wells are in left.
Dalton opens the season against Coahulla Creek on Thursday at home.
Following a dismal 2012 season — Murray County went 1-17 while playing a non-region schedule — the Indians realistically expect improvement this year.
“We only had 14 players in the program. We had lost 14 seniors. It seemed best to not play a full region schedule,” said Indians coach Jeff Lanning, whose third season leading the program will begin Feb. 28 at Pickens.
The 2011 team went 14-12, but last year’s results seemed to back up the decision to play a non-region slate.
“Last year, it was like the Keystone Kops,” Lanning lamented. “We were moving people by position all over the place.”
The Indians lost just two seniors from that team, though, and as they return to region play in 7-2A, Lanning is optimistic about having a roster that is young but more experienced than in 2012.
“We do have some older kids who are good leaders,” he said.
Andrew Corbin, who was the top pitcher a year ago as a freshman, will be counted on again.
“Andrew is a control pitcher who does not throw real hard,” Lanning said. “He has a lot of movement. He can be effective when he’s getting his curveball across.”
Senior catcher Jacob Payne returns behind the plate, while classmate Josh Jacobson will likely man center field again. Sophomore Nick Stiles and senior Mikey Palmer, who alternated at third base, both figure to start in the infield. Senior Jagger Phillips has logged starting duty at second base and on the mound.
There are plenty of open races for starting spots. Other Indians looking for playing time are juniors Damon Roberts (infielder/pitcher), Jordan Walls (infielder) and Austin Pearson (infielder); sophomore David Bennett (infielder/pitcher); and freshmen Alex Yangquist (catcher), Austin Carnes (outfielder), Eric Blaylock (infielder), Ary Hunter (infielder), Javy Adame (outfielder), Noah Price (infielder/pitcher), Petee Weldon (infielder/pitcher) and Wyatt Stuckey (infielder/pitcher).
As the Mountaineers approach their third varsity season, they’re confident about achieving a winning record for the first time.
“We have better team chemistry,” coach Steve Granger said. “Our kids have bonded well. We’re more team-oriented than the past.”
North Murray, which was 13-13 in 2012, opens the season against Union County on Tuesday in Chatsworth. Reclassification has moved the Mountaineers from Region 7-2A to 5-3A.
Three of the team’s five returning starters were picked by league coaches to the all-region lineup last season — junior pitcher/shortstop Aaron Granger (the coach’s son), senior catcher-pitcher Jared Campbell and senior third baseman Ethan Lents.
Granger returns as the top pitcher after going 4-1 with a 2.00 ERA.
“Aaron locates his fastball very well,” coach Granger said. “He has a pretty good changeup.”
Campbell, senior Jacob Mays — who has signed a football scholarship with Charleston Southern University — and sophomore lefty Cole Vaughn can also pitch.
“Pitching hurt us last year,” coach Granger said. “We ran out of gas. Pitching will be a lot better this year. We have more people who can throw. Adding Mays, who did not play last year, certainly will help.”
The other two returning starters are sophomore left fielder Caleb Campbell (Jared’s brother) and senior right fielder Jared Goswick. They’ll flank Brandon Brock in center.
Vaughn normally gets the call at first base. When Granger is pitching, sophomore Alex Viars usually goes at shortstop. Sophomores Hinton McConkey, Austin Nichols and Evan Rice are all possibilities at second base.
“Typically, we have been strong on defense,” coach Granger said. “We’re handling the bats better. I think that we have more balance overall.”
As Northwest prepares for Region 7-4A competition — the Bruins will play in 7B-4A of the sub-divided league — it will lean on a returning ace and experienced infield following its first above-.500 region finish since 2009.
Seth Pierce, who was named The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Baseball Player of the Year as a freshman in 2012, will be the Bruins’ top pitcher. Senior second baseman Brady Middleton and junior shortstop Diego Peralta also return. Sophomore Edwin Hernandez switches from first base to third base, and Andy Whisenant returns on the mound and in the outfield.
“We’re not going to hit a ton of home runs as a team, but we swing the bat decent,” said coach Todd Middleton, Brady’s father. “We have some pop. Pitching and defense will be what wins games for us.”
Northwest’s sub-region includes Dalton, Heritage-Catoosa, LaFayette, Ridgeland and Southeast. Last season, the Bruins were in Class 4A while the others were in 3A. Northwest closed 2012 with a 15-11 record, going 11-9 in Region 7-4A play, but finished shy of the postseason.
“We were in a great region last year, one of the best in the state,” Middleton said. “Johns Creek was in the finals. Forsyth Central was in the final eight.”
The Bruins will play 15 sub-region games, beginning March 19 with Ridgeland.
This season, the region’s four state playoff teams will be determined exactly like they were in football. The sub-region winners are guaranteed state berths and will play each other in a best-of-three series for the region title.
The second- and third-place teams in each sub-region will cross over — No. 2 playing No. 3 — to determine the final two spots.
“Our goals are to qualify for state, win the region and go as far as we can in the state playoffs,” Middleton said.
The Bruins open the season by hosting Christian Heritage on Feb. 25. On March 1, Northwest and Coahulla Creek will play at AT&T Field, home of the Chattanooga Lookouts.
After spending the past three years in the land of irrelevance, Southeast coach Brad Lofton believes it’s time for the Raiders to make a leap toward competitiveness.
Since Lofton became the Raiders’ coach in 2009, Southeast has gone 18-55. Players who were freshmen when Lofton took over are now seniors. The team is dominated by fourth-year players and experienced juniors like pitcher/shortstop Blake Foster and pitcher/outfielder Rhett Harper.
“We can’t use being young as an excuse any longer,” Lofton said. “With the experience we have coming back, I expect us to be in the (state) playoffs this year. The region is strong this year and we’re at the point that we should be able to compete.”
The Raiders make the move to Sub-region 7B-4A after going 6-19 a year ago in Region 7-3A.
Foster, an all-area selection for both baseball and football as a sophomore, batted .446 with 33 hits and 18 RBIs — all team-high totals — and put together a 14-game hitting streak down the stretch of the 2012 season. He has drawn the attention of University of Georgia coach David Perno, Lofton said.
Harper, also an all-area selection, and senior Jose Vargas, entering his fourth season as the starting catcher, each batted .364 last season. Vargas drove in 10 runs, joining Foster as the only Raiders in double figures in that offensive category.
Pedro Vargas, who hit .271 as a junior, has started two years at first base. Outfielder/pitcher Zach Ramsey and outfielder/second baseman Abram Stanley, who hit .272 in 2012, will be starting for the third year at their respective positions. Lofton’s stepson, senior Austin Pratt, will play third.
Senior Tyler Hale won four of the Raiders’ six pitching decisions in 2012, posting a 4.61 ERA with 61 strikeouts in 54.2 innings. Harper won the other two games.
The Raiders open the season on Tuesday, hosting state power Calhoun at 5:30 p.m. The two teams will play again at the same time Thursday at Southeast.
— Reports compiled by Larry Fleming, Devin Golden, Doug Hawley, Marty Kirkland and Chris Whitfield.
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