Saturday November 28th, 2015 6:51PM

Hot start: West Hall baseball only hoping to get hotter in Rennspies' second year

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
OAKWOOD -- Dustin Rennspies saw this coming.

He saw it building over the summer and throughout the fall -- and now he just wants to keep it going.

In his second season with West Hall baseball, Rennspies had little doubt his team would improve -- and now the Spartans are making believers out of the rest of northeast Georgia.

After winning 11 games in 2013, West Hall is already off to a 4-0 start to 2014. And with its top two pitchers and five position players back from last campaign, it's a safe bet that the unit will only continue to improve.

But Rennspies says his team's charge into this spring goes far beyond simple experience.

"Those guys have gotten in the weight room; they've listened and they've worked," Rennspies said. "They have bought into what it takes to be successful."

Now that they have tasted success, Rennspies expects it to whet their collective appetites.

"Winning's addictive, and it doesn't take much to make you start wanting more and more," Rennspies said. "The thing is we have to continue to get better and learn how to deal with success now."

The kind of success Rennspies and the Spartans are aiming for won't come easy.

"I expect us to challenge for a state playoff spot," Rennspies said.

That will be hard enough in Region 7-AAA, which contains one of the preseason favorites in all of Class AAA in Buford, as well as 2013 Class AAA runner-up North Hall.

"We're going to have to come ready to play every night," Rennspies said. "You've got Buford, which is loaded, North Hall, which is extremely well-coached -- I don't care how many pitchers they graduated -- White County has several players back and a difference-maker on the mound in Spencer (Adams); Dawson County returns a lot of strong players; East Hall has six-seven starters back; Banks County has a dominant pitcher; Fannin County has two guys that can bring it... It's a tough region."

Add to that the fact that Rennspies is trying to rebuild a program that has not visited the state playoffs in some time -- "I think the last time was in 2002," Rennspies said -- and it's clear that West Hall faces some challenges ahead.

Yet Rennspies is more than encouraged by what he's seen from his squad.

"There's no doubt we've taken the next step as far as coaching and within the program," Rennspies said. "We're still working on it though. It's hard to sell expectation automatically, but when the kids and their parents do buy in you have a chance for long-term success. And that's what has happened here."

Rennspies witnessed that buy-in firsthand this summer, as players crowded into offseason workouts and began to take develop leadership roles.

"We've got a collection of five-seven guys that have become leaders on this team, and it's not just the seniors. The guys understand that they've all had two years under me now, and they're all pretty much in the same place," Rennspies said. "The leaders we have are keeping everyone going in the same direction, and everyone feels like they have some ownership of the program now."

That includes players like senior pitcher/shortstop Zach English -- who knows a thing or two about turning around programs under second-year coaches after quarterbacking Spartans football to the 2013 playoffs in their first state appearance since 2002 -- under second-year head coach Tony Lotti.

"Winning's contagious, and it's done a lot for Zach," Rennspies said. "I really only have two football players on the team, but the success they had did something for the school as a whole."

Senior catcher Lincoln Stubbs, outfielder Cameron Johnson and pitcher/outfielder Michael Cronic have also played key roles and will continue to be cornerstones for the Spartans.

"They're a tight-knit bunch, and they have built that bond," Rennspies said. "The whole team has that tightness, and the guys are friends off the field."

Over the coming weeks, Rennspies hopes that unity will ally with his players' versatility to help battle for 7-AAA. Though the coach also wants to see more consistency.

"Right now our strength changes from night to night; some nights we're capable of pitching great, some nights we really hit the ball well; some nights it's our defense," Rennspies said. "We haven't really been crisp in all three phases in one game yet though."

Now that the bitter weather of the past few weeks is fading, however, Rennspies believes his team can begin to find a more constant groove.

"We lost eight-nine full days practice time (due to winter weather), and it's showing a little bit early; we're not as crisp as we'd like to be," Rennspies said. "Now that we're playing regularly though that will get a more balanced team out there."

The region challenges will start soon, as the 7-AAA schedule gets underway March 10 (Monday) at Dawson County.

"I think we can be pretty good, with that core leadership pushing us," Rennspies said. "But they're going to be tested, and they know that. They're going to have to understand it's a marathon and to stay the course and not panic if something does go wrong.

"At some point in this region we're probably going to lose a game; it's how we react to it that will be critical."

Right now, however, the Spartans are taking the opportunity to enjoy some of the fruits of their offseason labors -- even if they know the heaviest labors may be right around the corner.
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