Friday July 31st, 2015 9:25AM

Baseball: Current Buford starters conjuring up memories of 2011 Wolves

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter
Tuesday's GHSA baseball quarterfinals
Starr's Mill at Gainesville, 4 p.m.
Class AAA
Pike County at Buford, 4:30 p.m.
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BUFORD -- Comparisons in sports are inevitable and always have been.

Which program is better?

Lakers or Celtics? Alabama or Notre Dame?

It can get even more minute when looking inside a program. Which year was better? The 1926 Yankees or the 2000 Yankees?

Buford baseball coach Tony Wolfe is being asked that in recent days as his current Wolves have steamrolled their way through the Class AAA playoffs to this point. They have allowed just four runs through their first four games this playoff season and but for one crazy inning would have pitched four straight shutouts in the first two rounds.

Buford (27-2) will try to continue its run Tuesday taking on Pike County (25-3) at home in a best-of-three quarterfinal series. First pitch is set for 4:30 p.m. It is a rematch of the 2011 state championship series.

In other quarterfinal action Tuesday, Gainesville will play host to Starr's Mill at 4 p.m. at Ivey-Watson in a best-of-three series in the Class AAAAA playoffs.

Game 3s for both series would be Wednesday, if necessary.

For Buford fans, the current run has conjured up memories of the 2011 state title team.

"I don't like comparisons because each team is different," Wolfe said. "People are always going to do that but really its not fair to the old team or the new team. But I can see the similarities between the two teams."

The 2011 team featured lefty Sam Clay and hard-throwing right-handers Jake Burnette and Josh Heddinger. The current version has southpaw Jake Higginbotham, hard-throwing right-hander Conor Bennett, and crafty Kevin Coulter.

However, not even the 2011 staff has done what Higginbotham (51.1 I, 7-0, 0.68 ERA), Bennett (31 I, 6-0, 0.68 ERA), and Coulter (42.2 I, 9-0, 1.15 ERA) have been able to accomplish over the last three weeks. The current trio is working on a streak of 25-consecutive scoreless innings as a starting group, including 19 straight in the playoffs.

"These three are a lot like the others but they are really pitching well right now and I think trying to make their own mark a little bit," Wolfe said. "They've been aggressive all year. I like that they go right after hitters. It's always about the pitching this time of year. I like what they're doing."

But Wolfe was quick to point out that the 2011 team has something the 2014 Wolves do not.

"That team did it for five rounds and came out with a title," he said. "This group still has some work to do. But again, I like what they've done the first couple of rounds. I hope we're not jinxing ourselves here."

But Higginbotham, Bennett, and Coulter are not the entire staff. Keyton Gibson, Griffin Jolliff, and Austin Wilhite have all logged some valuable innings in relief.

"We try to get some work for everybody and fortunately we have some guys behind those three that can throw," Wolfe said. "The whole staff has been good. Guys have stepped up when we needed them."

Nick Wilhite, earlier in the year, said the Wolves offense feeds off its pitching. Buford batters are hitting .378 as a team and scored a ridiculous 301 runs so far (10.3 rpg) on the season.

"When we get pitching like that, it fires us up," Wilhite said after a Buford win over White County at home. "We're tough to beat when those guys are on. It lets us relax."

Wolfe agreed.

"Again, when you get good pitching, it just makes everything else easier for you," Wolfe said. "Batters can relax knowing they don't have to score five runs an inning just to keep up. The defense is usually sharper because they are more focused."

The Wolves will need to be sharp and focused against the Pirates, who unseated them from atop Class AAA late in the season. Pike County needed three games to get by Southeast Bulloch in the second round but has won 18 of 19 and the loss to Southeast in Game 2 of their series snapped a 17-game winning streak. The Pirates have averaged 9.0 rpg in the playoffs.

"Pike is always a quality team and they are very well-coached," Wolfe said. "I expect a close series. We will need to pitch the way we have been the first two rounds.

"But baseball is a funny game. Just when you think things are going your way they can turn. We'll need to be on the top of our game to move on (to the semifinals)."
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