April 22, 2014

Bruins aim for 7-4A baseball crown at Cedartown

Northwest Whitfield High School’s baseball team rode an emotional three-game roller coaster in last season’s Region 7-4A championship series on its way to the title.

Can the Bruins do it again?

Northwest heads to Cedartown today for a 5 p.m. doubleheader to start the best-of-three Region 7-4A title series. If necessary, a third game would be played Thursday at Cedartown, but a time hasn’t been set.

Although the 7-4A title and a No. 1 seed for the state playoffs — which guarantees home-field advantage for at least two rounds — are on the line, both teams are headed for state and will host a first-round series next week. They advanced to the region championship by finishing first in their respective sub-regions — 7B-4A for the Bruins and 7A-4A for the Bulldogs.

Dalton, which finished third in Sub-region 7B-4A, hits the road for a best-of-three series against the same team it played in this spot last year, Sub-region 7A-4A No. 2 seed River Ridge. They’ll play a 5 p.m. doubleheader today in Canton, with the third game (if necessary) played at a to-be-determined time Thursday at River Ridge.  The series winner moves on to the state playoffs and the loser is done for the season.

A year ago, Northwest (18-4) beat Cass in three games in Tunnel Hill to win its first region title since 2007. The Bruins finished this year’s sub-region schedule with the same league record as last season, 14-1, despite the pressure that 2013’s accomplishments brought.

“Everyone was definitely gunning for us this year because we won it last year,” junior outfielder and pitcher Seth Pierce said. “I think we did a really good job taking it game by game and not thinking ahead to the next series.”

Cedartown (18-5) beat Cass 2-1 on Monday to clinch the 7A-4A championship and set up the meeting with Northwest.

“I think the middle of our lineup is more dangerous,” Bruins coach Todd Middleton said. “I’ve seen them play once. They didn’t hit well in that win against Cass, but they did Saturday against Rome when they scored nine runs (and lost 10-9).”

In last year’s Region 7-4A championship series, Northwest lost the opener but won the second game the same day to force a third game the following day.

In the decisive contest, Cass went up 3-0 in the second inning after an umpire missed a would-be third out on a play that resulted in two runs for the Colonels. Later, Northwest’s Kyle Brock dove up and over Cass catcher Sam Russell — an illegal play by Brock that wasn’t called — to cut Cass’ lead to 6-5 in the sixth. Diego Peralta’s two-run double followed that memorable dive and proved to be the winning hit on an up-and-down (although ultimately up) day for the Bruins.

Northwest’s roster is filled with players who remember those moments of adversity and perseverance. Along with Peralta and Pierce, Edwin Hernandez and Andy Whisenant are regular starters who returned from a year ago.

“We definitely didn’t take the easy path,” said Whisenant, a senior outfielder, pitcher and leadoff hitter. “So we know even if we lose one game, we won’t be done for. We’ll keep doing our best and wont give up.”

Middleton named Logan Hilton the first-game starter but said everything beyond that hasn’t been decided. He said Pierce, who was used as a starting pitcher his first two seasons with the Bruins but has been used primarily as a reliever this season, could start the second or third game.

Dalton (14-10, 9-6) had the chance to host a Region 7-4A playoff series with a win in one of its final two games last week against sub-region foe Heritage-Catoosa, which hosts Cass in the region’s other 2 vs. 3 series. But the Catamounts lost them both and now return to a similar spot as they try to forget the disappointment of the last two weeks — they were swept by Northwest before the Heritage series — to reach state.

“The thing I noticed the last two days is I don’t think there will be any carryover,” Dalton coach Shane Ramsey said. “As long as we throw strikes and put the ball in play, we’ll be fine. I do think we’ll hit the ball.”

River Ridge, which is 13-9 entering this series, swept the Cats in two games last season to keep Dalton out of the state playoffs for the third season in a row. Dalton made four straight appearances in the state playoffs from 2007 to 2010.

“They’re similar to last year,” Ramsey said. “I think they’re a little better offensively. They’re a team that likes to put pressure on you. That’s why it’s imperative we pound the strike zone. We can’t give them extra outs or baserunners. They like to move runners and bunt a lot.”

Jackson Bell will start on the mound in today’s opener but Ramsey said he hasn’t settled on other starting pitchers.

Regardless of who’s throwing the ball, the Cats are determined to have a different result against the Knights this time.

“I know how last year felt when we lost those two games,” Ramsey said. “I don’t want that feeling again. We’re building our program and it’s brick by brick. This is another goal we’ve had.”

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