If there is one thing the 12 northeast Georgia-based teams that begin play Friday in quest of a state baseball championship know for sure, it's they will have a hard time duplicating last season's postseason excitement.
Or can they?
Last year saw North Hall make a dramatic run to the Class AAA state title series and Gainesville advance to the Elite 8 in Class AAAAA.
This year, Buford (Class AAA) and Jefferson (Class AA) finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in their classifications in some polls while Gainesville was ranked No. 1 in Class AAAAA for much of the season. While rankings have no affect on the playoffs, all three of those teams, which won their respective region titles, are expecting to make a serious run at state titles.
All first and second round playoff series are a best-of-three format played at the home of the higher seeds over a two-day period, if necessary. The first day is a doubleheader with a third game, if necessary, played the following day.
Gainesville opens against Tucker at Ivey-Watson, Buford will take on North Murray at home, and Jefferson opens the playoffs at home against Greater Atlanta Christian.
Gainesville coach Jeremy Kemp knows all about momentum. The Elephants (20-6) were riding high in last year's playoffs but ran into a hot Whitewater team in the Elite 8. They face some early challenges against Tucker with two key players -- catcher Michael Curry and pitcher Chandler Newton -- questionable for the series.
But the Elephants, the top seed from Region 8-AAAAA, still have super prospect Michael Gettys and won nine straight to close out the regular season.
"The playoffs are an unknown factor because you really don't know what the other teams have until you play that first game," Kemp said. "We're not thinking about rankings or who is supposed to be favored. You have to come out and play and perform. If you don't, you'll get beat.
"But we played real well the last three weeks despite the injuries so we feel confident. Drew Satterfield did an excellent job filling in for (Michael) Curry. But I feel we're going to have to hit the ball. Tucker has a couple of good left-handers and we've been good at times and not-so-good at times against lefties."
Buford (23-2) comes in as the No. 1 seed from 7-AAA and is loaded on the mound, led by Clemson-commit Jake Higginbotham and Connor Bennett. The Wolves are a perfect 13-0 at home and won 13 games via the 10-run Mercy Rule during the season.
"Jake took a ball off his foot last week so we'll have to see what his status is come game-time," Buford coach Tony Wolfe said. "But we have four or five guys besides those two that have given us quality innings so we should be fine. The problem is we just don't know much about (North Murray)."
Offensively the Wolves are paced by Georgia Tech-signee Joey Bart and have Austin Wilhite, who is batting .430 on the season at the top of the order, and Austin Upshaw to help set the table.
"Finding ways to score runs will be the key," Wolfe said. "We have worked on being able to move runners and manufacture runs so hopefully we'll be okay. But I expect it to be a tough series."
Jefferson (21-3) comes into the Class AA playoffs as the one of the hottest teams in the state riding an 18-game win streak, which included a perfect 14-0 run in Region 8-AA. But Dragons coach Tommy Knight said none of that matters now.
"We've been playing well but now everyone is the same and you need two wins to advance. I don't think (GAC) cares what kind of streak we've been on," Knight said.
Jefferson, like Buford, is loaded with quality arms, led by Georgia-signee Max Ford, and junior Micah Carpenter. GAC is led by Kentucky-signee Justin Lewis on the mound.
"We feel our strength is pitching," Knight said. "We have five or six guys that can all throw and have experience. We'll need everyone to throw well. But I don't see a lot of runs score so the team that can generate some offense will win. This is about as tough a playoff opener as you can get."
But the playoffs would not be complete without darkhorse contenders and northeast Georgia has several teams that will be dangerous in a short series. High on that list is White County, which is led by another Georgia-signee in pitcher Adam Spencer.
The Warriors, who are the No. 4 seed from Region 7-AAA, open on the road against defending Class AAA state champion Cartersville, but if Adams is on and White County can find some offense, they are more than capable of pulling off the upset
"A pitcher like Spencer can be a difference in one game for sure," White County coach John Brown said. "The key for us will be finding a run or two and having the rest of the pitchers step up. It's a tall order for us but we're going over there thinking we have a chance."
North Hall (18-8) was last year's Class AAA state runner-up and found itself in the middle part of the season. The Trojans, who will play host to Sonoraville, are led by Corbin Lewallen on the mound and Andrew Smith at the plate. They don't pack the offensive punch of a season ago but have enough arms and a pesky lineup to offer plenty of challenges of their own.
"We still have a bunch of guys from last year that saw action and others that were in the dugout so they know what needs to be done to win a series," North Hall coach Trent Mongero said.
The Trojans will be at home, where they are 10-3 this season and won four playoff series a year ago.
"We're carrying some momentum into the playoffs and we love playing at home," Mongero said. "Sonoraville is solid. They beat Cartersville twice. This will be a true test for us."
West Hall, the third seed from 7-AAA, has been steady most of the season. The Spartans, who will travel to face Ringgold, do not have a Spencer Adams but have gotten contributions throughout the roster all season.
Zach English and Cameron Johnson have helped lead the Spartans to their first playoff appearance since 2003. But coach Dustin Rennespies said they are not just glad to be here.
"Our region is very tough and I don't think we'll see anything in the playoffs we haven't already faced," Rennespies said. "If we execute at the plate, pitch well, and don't make mistakes in the field we have a shot."
West Hall (18-8) was 7-5 on the road in the regular season, including a win at White County. Rennespies admitted a series win would be huge for the program.
"It would be big for the program but really more for the guys on the team," Rennespies said. "I would mean they have accomplished something no other West Hall team has done. They are excited about the chance to represent West Hall and are looking forward to the challenge."
See below the entire area schedule for the first round of the baseball playoffs.
NOTES: According to the pre-playoff rankings from Score Atlanta, there are some interesting possible matchups looming for area teams during the playoffs. Pike County is No. 1 in AAA and Buford No. 2. They are slated to meet in the quarterfinals if they both advance through the second round. In fact, three of the top five teams are in the Wolves bracket. . .The three teams ranked above Gainesville in Class AAAAA are all on the other side of the AAAAA bracket from the Elephants, though Big Red could meet No. 8 Rome in the second round. . .Lumpkin County drew the No. 2 team in Class AAAA (Redan) in the first round. . .Jefferson would not face a ranked team until the quarterfinals at earliest (No. 8 Berrien). . .Flowery Branch faces No. 6 Dunwoody in the first round. If the Falcons can get past the Wildcats there is only one other ranked in their quadrant (No. 5 Houston County) until the semifinals. The Falcons and Gainesville could meet again in the semifinals.
First round matchups
Friday, doubleheaders; Saturday, third game, if necessary
Tucker at Gainesville
Flowery Branch at Dunwoody
Lumpkin County at Redan
North Murray at Buford
Sonoraville at North Hall
White County at Cartersville
West Hall at Ringgold
Jackson County at Blessed Trinity
Greater Atlanta Christian at Jefferson
Wesleyan at Union County
Rabun County at Lovett
Class A Public
Commerce at Gordon Lee