GAINESVILLE -- Even Gainesville, which is coming off a Final Four appearance last year in Class AAA, won't be immune to the biggest question surrounding the upcoming high school baseball season: uncertainty.
The Red Elephants moved up to Class AAAAA this season with the new realignment and coach Jeremy Kemp said the apparent jump up in competition, combined with knowing little about his new Region 8-AAAAA, has him anxious as they prepare to start the season Thursday at Ivey-Watson against Class AAAAAA Shiloh.
"I just have no idea really what to expect," Kemp said. "This is a big jump for us. I don't know much about 8-AAAAA but I know by reputation they have some excellent baseball teams. We'll just have to see how things go. I'm looking forward to it."
Region 8-AAAAA features the top two teams in Class AAAAA in Loganville and Gainesville with Flowery Branch, Winder-Barrow, and Heritage all expecting to challenge for playoff spots.
"It may be the best region in Class AAAAA," Kemp said. "Every game will be tough."
The Red Elephants will be led by University of Georgia signee Skyler Weber (Catcher) and Lipscomb University signee Hunter Anglin (3B, P) as well junior Michael Gettys (P) who has committed to Georgia and was a perfect 12-0 last season. Junior Chandler Newton will join the rotation to give Gainesville a solid pitching corps.
"I feel like we'll have a solid staff again. But we lost some good bats so we will need to pitch well while the offense comes together," Kemp said.
Flowery Branch, which is staying put in 8-AAAAA, is looking to make a second straight playoff appearance. However, the Falcons may be behind the eight-ball right from the start. They lost their three top bats to graduation and senior and No. 1 pitcher Chase Hulsey, who has signed with Perimeter College, was lost for the season last week with a shoulder injury.
"I feel bad for him, being his last year," coach Scott Meyers said. "It is a big loss for us. We were expecting big things from him this year."
Myers said they still have plenty of quality arms, but are short on varsity experience to start the season. Senior Brad Keller, a Presbyterian signee, who is sidelined with a foot injury, and sophomore Jonathan Hughes are expected to be in the rotation. Myers said seniors Blake Turner and Andrew Weekley, and junior Dylan Gibeau all will be called on to start.
"We have a big hole to fill so I expect that we will have to get some innings from everyone," Myers said. "We have 10 games before the start of the region to find out what we have and where we want to use them."
At the plate the Falcons will rely on seniors Keltin Devoe (SS) and C.J. Navin (OF) and junior Andrew Miles (1B) for some early leadership. Sophomore Robert Rose will take overbthe catching duties and junior Justin Seabolt will take over at second base.
Myers said despite the early-season setbacks, they still expect to challenge for a playoff spot.
"We're taking the 'next man up' mentality," he said. "Injuries are part of the game so you have to be ready when your time is called. We still feel like we have enough talent to be a player in the region. But we can't really afford any more key injuries."
The Falcons open the season Monday on the road at Shiloh and then will take on West Forsyth at Piedmont College on Tuesday.
Each team in Region 8-AAAAA will play each other twice in home-and-home series with the top four teams advancing to the playoffs
In Region 7-AAA, North Hall coach Trent Mongero and White County coach John Brown echoed Kemp in their uncertainty about the new season. Both teams, who were part of 8-AAA last year, are in a revamped 7-AAA with newcomers Buford, West Hall, East Hall, Fannin County, Dawson County, and Banks County. The region is made up of members from three former regions making for little familiarity.
"I'm not really sure what everyone has right now because other than White and West Hall we didn't play any of the other teams in the region for several years," Mongero said. "There will be some feeling out time. It should be interesting."
"I don't know anything about the other teams so I'm not sure what to expect as to how good everyone is and who the top pitchers and players are," Brown said. "It makes for some nervousness since we don't know each other. But we'll know each other once we play a few region games."
Region 7-AAA will have a somewhat unorthodox region schedule with everyone playing each other three times, twice in a home-and-home series and then once more later in the season. The top four teams will then advance to the state playoffs.
"I like the format for the playoffs," Mongero said. "We will find who the best teams are and send the right teams to the playoffs."
The Trojans, who fell to Allatoona in the first round of the playoffs last season, should be poised for another playoff run in 2013. They are led by five seniors, including their top three pitchers.
Left-handers Preston Graham and Colton Duttweiler and right-hander Adam Kelly give them a potent staff. Seniors Griffin Olson (3B, P) and Zach Mize (2B) along with junior Andrew Smith (SS) should anchor a solid lineup.
"I feel real good about our pitching and I think we should be able to hit the ball," Mongero said. "Our goal is win the region and get back to the playoffs."
White County may have the single best pitcher in the region in junior right-handed pitcher Spencer Adams, who is a Georgia commit. Senior first baseman Brent Westmoreland, who hit .441 with four home runs last year, has signed with Young Harris and will lead the offense.
"We will be young this season so I'm not real sure how good we will be," Brown said. "Spencer gives us a chance to win every time he's on the mound but we're trying to find two or three others who can pitch at this level. We'll see."
Teams in Region 8-AAAA have some familiarity with Johnson, Chestatee, Lumpkin County, Lanier, Stephens County, Walnut Grove, and Monroe Area moving over from 8-AAA. But Madison County and Eastside, a playoff team in 2012, bring some unknown to the region.
Johnson coach Tony Wilson said the region was tough enough without adding Madison County and Eastside.
"Walnut Grove, Lanier, Lumpkin, Madison, Eastside, Stephens should all be good," Wilson said. "It's a tough region. We'll have our hands full."
The Knights are still looking for their first playoff berth since 2005 and will find the going rough in 2012 after graduating six starters from last season, including third baseman Trae Wilson, who led the team in average, home runs, and RBI. But, the Knights have young talent that should improve as the season progresses.
Juniors Jordan Green (C), Jackson Frazer (OF, P), and Corey Collins (3B) return along with senior Drew Mullinax (2B) to give Johnson some experience. But Green is the only returning starter with significant time on the mound in 2012. Collins started at second base last season.
"We don't have as much varsity experience as you would like at the beginning of the season but I also think we have a chance to improve and get better," Wilson said. "I think our pitching should be pretty good at the beginning. The offense is still a work in progress and will have to catch up. We'll have to win games with pitching and defense."
Sophomore Asher Griffin, Frazer, Green, and Chandler Cochran give Wilson plenty of options on the mound. Griffin and Green are projected as the top two starters and Wilson said he is looking for a consistent No. 3 starter.
Lakeview Academy is perhaps the only team in the area that knows its opposition before the season begins. The Lions remain in Region 8-A, which also remained relatively intact from last season.
Lakeview coach Duece Roark said familiarity isn't a problem for them. The toughness of the region will be. Last year's Class A state champion Providence Christian resides in their region as does 2011 champ Hebron Christian and 2012 Final Four team George Walton.
"Our region is loaded," Roark said. "Right now there are three teams you figure to be in the running (for the top spot in the region) which doesn't leave a lot of room for many others. But I think we have a shot this year to compete for a spot."
The Lions have not made the playoffs since the 2010 season, where they lost in the first round. But Roark, who has preached pitching and defense during his tenure at Lakeview, said they have the ingredients in 2013 to follow his model of success.
"We have four quality starters and a lineup that should be able to score some runs," he said. "We're not going to win slugfests but that's not where our game is. We like low scoring games and I think we have the pitching depth to keep games low."
Southpaw senior Dallas Deavers and sophomore right-hander Harrison Styles return to anchor the staff. Sophomore Dakota Chalmers and junior Avery Smith, a newcomer, give Roak and the Lions plenty of options.
Lakeview also returns six starters to its lineup. Deavers and fellow senior Jarrett Huge will patrol the outfield. Seniors Nick Henderson (C), Randy Hill (1B), Styles (3B), and Chalmers (SS) provide experience at the plate. Seniors Ted Reynolds (INF) and Justin Muldowney (utility) should see plenty of action.
"I like the lineup we have," Roark said. "There are a couple of holes to fill but we should be fine."