Wednesday May 25th, 2016 11:08AM

Baseball: 2014 full of surprises by area teams

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter
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It was very nearly the ultimate season to remember on the diamond for area baseball teams in 2014.<br /> <br /> Gainesville and Buford both were within one victory of playing for state titles and both teams, along with Jefferson, were ranked No. 1 coming into the playoffs.<br /> <br /> Flowery Branch and North Hall had surprising runs in the playoffs while West Hall ended a decade-long playoff drought and came close to getting its first-ever playoff series win.<br /> <br /> Gainesville was powered by Michael Gettys, a Georgia-signee who is projected as a high first-round pick as an outfielder in next week's MLB Draft. The Elephants won their second consecutive Region 8-AAAAA title and reached the Class AAAAA semifinals before falling in a classic three-game series to Houston County, which was led a several players from the Warner Robins group that won the Little League World Series in 2007.<br /> <br /> Despite the bittersweet ending, Gainesville coach Jeremy Kemp at the time said he was not disappointed in his group.<br /> <br /> "They're unbelievable; they've done everything we've asked of them and made play after play," said Kemp, who will bring back eight juniors next season. "They're also good kids and good students. They have handled a lot of things on this team and made it so much fun to coach. I don't think I've ever had as much fun with one team. I just wish we could reverse (that) last result."<br /> <br /> Gainesville lost Game 1 in that series and trailed late in Game 2 before staging a thrilling comeback to send the series to a third game. They had the early lead and the two teams traded the lead two more times in Game 3 before the Bears rallied late to take the series.<br /> <br /> Buford shared a similar fate as the Elephants winning the Region 7-AAA title and advancing to the Class AAA semifinals. The Wolves could not, however, find a way past defending AAA state champion Cartersville, who rallied to take the final two games to end the Wolves' season.<br /> <br /> "It's been a great group to coach and they have a lot of heart and character and it's tough to see it end this way for them," Buford coach Tony Wolfe said after the loss in Game 3. "This will hurt for a little while but we have most everyone coming back so we feel good about moving forward."<br /> <br /> West Hall was the best surprise of the season by far. The Spartans had not qualified for the playoffs since 2003 and showed guts and resiliency all season in posting their first winning record in more than a decade. They dropped a gut-wrenching 7-6 Game 3 against Ringgold in the first round of the Class AAA playoffs to end their season.<br /> <br /> Coach Dustin Rennespies had nothing but praise for his team despite the early exit.<br /> <br /> "No one except the guys in the dugout gave us a chance (to make the playoffs)," he said afterwards. "These guys were looking to accomplish something no other West Hall team had done. We came up a little short but it was a fun year and I couldn't be more proud of them."<br /> <br /> North Hall, despite finishing as Class AAA state runner-up in 2013, was perhaps the biggest question mark coming into the season. The Trojans lost five college-signees, including their top three pitchers, and had key injuries to three starters to begin the season.<br /> <br /> But coach Trent Mongero said his group found a way to fight through the adversity and finish second in Region 7-AAA. The Trojans advanced to the second round and took eventual state champion Blessed Trinity to a deciding third game before falling to the Titans on the road.<br /> <br /> "This was one of my favorite teams because of how they came together during the year," Mongero said after the Blessed Trinity series. "We had a lot of new guys with no varsity experience and they grew up during the year and showed they could play with anyone. To finish second (in the region) when few gave us much of a chance was outstanding."<br /> <br /> Outgoing senior Andrew Smith said the team came together after a come-from-behind victory over Lumpkin County early in the season.<br /> <br /> "That was a big game for us," Smith said after the Blessed Trinity series. "We were like 1-4 [1-3] and had a lot of injuries and still trying to find our way. Somehow we won that game and that just kind of got us all going in the same direction.<br /> <br /> "No one gave us much of a chance after losing so many good players. I thought we proved a lot of people wrong. The guys never gave up."<br /> <br /> White County, which was an early contender in 7-AAA, started strong with seven straight wins and had Georgia-signee Adam Spencer. But the Warriors struggled offensively down the stretch to finish fourth and was knocked off by eventual state-runner up Cartersville in the first round.<br /> <br /> Flowery Branch played the part of playoff warriors late in the season needing a sweep of Winder-Barrow in the final two games just to get into the playoffs. The Falcons got it and then used that momentum to knocked off Region 6-AAAAA champion Dunwoody in the first round.<br /> <br /> But, the Falcons could not get past the second round falling to North Paulding on the road in three games.<br /> <br /> Jefferson was ranked No. 1 in Class AA the last half of the season but ran into a talented Greater Atlanta Christian team that got a walk-off home run to win their first round series to spark them to the Class AA finals.<br /> Union County and Rabun County also advanced to the playoffs but like Jefferson was swept out in the first round.<br /> <br /> Commerce made the Class A Public playoffs but lost a close series in the first round to Gordon Lee, who lost in the Class A finals to Charlton County.<br /> <br /> Some great stars will be moving on like Gettys and Smith and Adams. But there will be plenty to look forward to next season.<br /> <br /> Buford still will have Jake Higginbotham and Connor Bennett and Joey Bart and the Wilhite brothers but will be moving up to Region 8-AAAA, as will North Hall and White County. <br /> <br /> West Hall looks to continue its turnaround and could be one of the early favorites in a revamped 7-AAA without Buford, North Hall, or White County. But Lumpkin County, which lost in the first round in the Class AAAA playoffs, moves down to 7-AAA and should be in the mix along with Dawson County, East Hall, and Franklin County.<br /> <br /> Here's to what was an exciting season and looking forward to next year and the promises it could bring.
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