GAINESVILLE -- There's no manual for coaches on how to follow up the best season in a program's history.
North Hall's Trent Mongero can atest to that.
After guiding the Trojans to a 32-6 record, a Region 7-AAA title, a trip to the state championship series, and setting 25 team records in 2013, Mongero knew there would be a learning curve this season after graduating five starters who each signed scholarships to play in college, two at the Division I level.
He just didn't know how tough that curve would be to navigate, however.
North Hall began the year 1-3 with its top returning pitcher (Corbin Lewallan) and two of its top position players (McCoy Savage and Drew Atha) on the injured list. Lewallen and Atha missed a combined 27 games and Savage missed six to open the season.
"Last year was the best team in the 55-year history of the program. Even if we had everyone returning it would be hard to duplicate that," Mongero said. "Each team has a set of challenges no matter how good it is. We certainly got a big dose early on (this year)."
Was it things evening out after a near-flawless 2013 campaign?
"I don't think so. But it did make me wonder a little," Mongero said. "Injuries are part of sports but you don't figure on that many important guys going down all at the same time. We set up a tough (schedule at the) beginning to see what our holes were and we knew we would have a bullseye on our back after last year."
With the early injuries, Mongero was forced to turn to less-experienced players. There were some growing pains.
"We got to see some guys that maybe would not have been in the position they had to fill," he said. "I always have confidence in our players. They just needed to grow and mature."
It was a 5-4 win over Lumpkin County that would turn the fortunes of the Trojans. Trailing late, they rallied in the final inning: they have gone 13-3 since and are now 14-6 overall, 12-3 in Region 7-AAA, with two of those losses to No. 1 Buford -- including a one-run loss where they let a five-run lead in the seventh inning slip away.
"(The Lumpkin) game set the tone for our turnaround. It gave the guys confidence that they could beat a good team. It also showed the kind of character they have," Mongero said. "We played Buford pretty well and really should've won that second game."
Along the way the Trojans also found a pair of hidden gems on the mound.
Senior right-hander Brandon DeLong, who had not pitched since the seventh grade, is 4-0 and has helped solidify a staff with little varsity experience outside of Lewallen. Josh Hammond, another who did not crack the rotation last season, leads the team in wins with seven.
"Those guys have really stepped up," Mongero said. "Corbin was not able to pitch for nearly half the season so they were our top guys. You can't ask more than what they have given us."
Lewallen has returned to the mound and given the Trojans a third solid starter. He outdueled Georgia-signee and possible MLB pick Spencer Adams two weeks ago in a 2-0 win over White County.
Last year's team was an offensive juggernaut, batting .405 during the regular season and finishing with a .372 average following its playoff run. This year, the Trojans have fallen off to .314 but have used speed and contact to manufacture runs.
Senior shortstop Andrew Smith has led the way with a .508 average and has had several multiple stolen base games. Junior Lincoln Hewett is hitting at a .431 clip.
Against East Hall Smith demonstrated the kind of threat he is on the bases. After a walk, he stole second and third, and then home, as part of a double steal.
"Andrew is a phenomenal player," Mongero said. "He does so many things on and off the field. He has provided leadership to the younger guys and has led by example."
With six games left in the regular season, the Trojans once again find themselves in the thick of the Region 7-AAA race. At the beginning of the season Mongero would have settled for a chance just to make the playoffs. Now, they trail Buford by by two games for the region lead and hold a two-game lead over West Hall for second.
"Again, we knew we were inexperienced and pitching was going to be our biggest question mark," Mongero said. "Add the injuries at the beginning and our initial outlook was to just hope we got better and got everyone back to make a run. But these guys have worked hard and continue to prove to people they can play."
In some respects, Mongero's best coaching job may have been to keep things together at the beginning of this year when things looked bleak. Has it been as rewarding as guiding last year's star-powered team to the Class AAA finals?
"I don't know if it's more rewarding than last year," he said. "There' still a long way to go and a lot can happen. I'll be better able to answer that question at the end of the season.
"But in my mind, this team hasn't arrived yet. They can still get better and I think they will. If they do, who knows what can happen."