After disappointing finishes last year, both the Gainesville and Buford baseball teams are just two wins from where they were hoping to be in 2013.
Buford was stunned in the first round last year, while Gainesville suffered two gut-wrenching, one-run losses in the third round.
But as with most things in life, that is in the past. The present and future are what you make of it. And both are making the most of their 2014 playoff runs so far.
Gainesville (26-6) has steamrolled its way through the Class AAAAA playoffs with three consecutive sweeps, including a dominating series win over Starr's Mill last week in the quarterfinals. The Red Elephants will play host to Houston County (25-5) on Monday in the semifinals at Ivey-Watson Field.
Buford (29-3) rolled through the first two rounds before surviving an epic three-game showdown with No. 1 Pike County in the quarterfinals. The Wolves will be tested again in the semifinals playing host to defending Class AAA champion Cartersville (23-10) on Monday at Gerald McQuaig Field. Buford won the Class AA state title in 2011.
The Gainesville-Houston County series is an intriguing one. It features nearly a half-dozen college signees, including a possible future matchup between the Red Elephants' Michael Gettys (Georgia, OF) and the Bears' Blake Jackson (Georgia Tech, 3B).
Gainesville is looking for its first state finals appearance since winning the Class AAA title in 2002 and coach Jeremy Kemp said despite being close enough to touch their goal, there has been no talk of state championships to this point.
"That was our goal coming in but we also know we can't win the state title (Monday)," Kemp said. "We have to take it one game at a time and that's what we're focused on. We let the fans and media talk about that stuff."
The semifinals is the furthest the Bears have ever advanced in the playoffs and the 25 wins are a program record. They lost to Starr's Mill last year in the Sweet 16 and Houston County coach Jason Brett said they have used that as motivation for this season.
"We felt we were good enough to go further last year but it didn't happen," Brett said. "I think that has helped us this year in knowing that you have to do all the little things this time of year."
Both teams are peaking at the right time and feature dynamic lineups. Gainesville has averaged 10 runs a game in consecutive sweeps of Tucker, Sequoyah, and Starr's Mill through the first three rounds. Houston County is averaging nine runs a game after sweeping Northgate, Lee County, and North Paulding.
Neither coach was particularly excited about facing each others lineups.
"(Houston County) has an unbelievable lineup," Kemp said. "It's going to be tough to slow them down. That will be the key to the series, I believe."
"Both teams can explode at any time so getting some quality pitching and minimizing the damage will be the key," Brett said. "I would expect to see some runs scored but anything is possible in high school baseball with two great teams like this."
The Red Elephants proved how destructive they can be at the plate and on the bases against Starr's Mill, belting three home runs, using their speed to leg out three infield hits, and stealing eight bases. They scored five runs on wild pitches.
Gettys, Sims Griffith (Furman, SS), Caleb Whitenton, Luke Maddox,, Michael Curry, Drew Satterfield (Tennessee-Temple), and Brandon Sewell have all contributed so far in the playoffs for Gainesville.
"We feel we can beat you in multiple ways," Kemp said. "Our goal every game is to score one more than the other team."
The Bears also feature signees Justin Jones (Georgia State, SS) and Hunt Smith (Georgia Southwestern, OF) and have six starters batting over .350 coming into the semifinals.
"We've been swinging it well but at this time of year pitching and defense are what really wins games," Brett said. "The team that gets the most from its pitchers will win it."
The Bears will send out Jordan McIlwain (9-1) and Hunter Phillips (7-2) in the first two games.
Gainesville is expected to go with Michael Gettys in Game 1 but Kemp was not sure after that. Whitenton, who has started all three Game 2s in the playoffs, left in the first inning against Starr's Mill with tightness in his forearm and Kemp said he is a game-time decision. Chandler Newton (Mercer, LHP) was outstanding in relief against Starr's Mill in his first action in nearly five weeks after nursing a sore shoulder, but that leaves a big question mark if the series goes the distance.
"You don't get this far without being able to pitch," Kemp said. "Our guys have thrown well. Caleb has been a couple outs short twice of no-hitters so if we don't have him we'll have to move some guys around. But Chandler was excellent and that was good to see because we just didn't know how he would be after that much time off."
The Buford-Cartersville semifinal pits two teams that have both won state titles within the last three seasons. The Hurricanes won the AAA title last year beating North Hall in the finals and the Wolves took the AA title in 2011.
This was considered by Cartersville standards to be a rebuilding year after losing virtually its entire starting lineup from last season. Nearly all of the 11 seniors on the Hurricanes current roster were playing on the junior varsity last year.
"We were so senior-laden last year that we put most of this year's seniors on JV to get them some playing time," Cartersville coach Stuart Chester said. "We knew we had some talent but there was very little varsity experience and we really weren't sure how far we could go this year. It's been a nice surprise."
And they have done it with four of their top pitchers out for the entire playoffs. Only one senior, Garrett Rutledge (RHP) was on the roster last year and saw action on the mound. Hunter Osborne (Rheinhart College, P) has led the staff but Chester has had to rely on sophomore lefty Elliott Anderson and junior right-hander Lane Wilson, who saw limited action before the playoffs.
"We're going with some guys we didn't think would be where they are at this time of the year but they have stepped up," Chester said. "But this will be by far our biggest test."
Cartersville won two elimination games over Callway to advance. The Hurricanes lost 1-0 in Game 1 and rallied for 4-3 and 7-2 victories in Games 2 & 3.
They will have to face a Buford lineup that has been explosive most of the year, led by Austin Wilhite, Joey Bart, Austin Upshaw, and Nick Wilhite. The Wolves averaged over 11 runs a game through the first two rounds and then showed their resiliency against No. 1 Pike County in the quarterfinals. They scored just seven runs in taking the series in three games but took advantage of every mistake and got timely hitting
"Good pitching will do that and we saw as good of a staff as you'll see," Buford coach Tony Wolfe said after the Pike County series. "Cartersville is the defending state champ so you know they know what to do this time of year. It will be a huge challenge for us."
Buford starters Jake Higginbotham, Connor Bennett, and Kevin Coulter have allowed just three runs combined so far in the playoffs. They held a Pirates offense averaging nine runs a game in the playoffs to just three runs in the series.
"(Buford) has one of the best staffs in the state at any level and we're going to have to have a great day to beat them," Chester said. "My guess is is that if there are a lot of runs scored, it won't be good for us. We have to pitch well and play great defense, which is what this team does best, and limit the damage they do.
"But this team has a lot of guts and never quits. I expect them to be competitive. Anything can happen."