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Sunday February 23rd, 2020 3:44AM

Baseball: Despite first-ever No. 1 ranking, North Hall still considers itself an underdog

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter

GAINESVILLE — When he was hired 11 seasons ago, then-new North Hall baseball coach Trent Mongero had few secrets at the time about his desires for a program that had traditionally been good and perpetually on the cusp of greatness.

“We want to make North Hall a program that people expect to challenge for region and state titles year-in and year-out,” Mongero said way back in 2006 when he took the helm of the program.

Since, Mongero has guided the Trojans to six straight playoff appearances, including their first-ever state championship series in 2013, and another Elite 8 showing in 2015.

But this season North Hall may have finally shed its Rodney Dangerfield-like persona of getting no respect. The Trojans have been ranked No. 1 in Class AAA for most of the 2017 campaign, a first for the long-time program.

Both Georgia Dugout and scoreatl.com had North Hall atop their latest Class AAA rankings as of last Friday.

“It’s an honor to be recognized for sure. The kids we’ve had in the program over the years have worked hard to build something here,” he said last week as they prepared for a Region 7-AAA tilt with rival East Hall.

But despite the recognition and top ranking, Mongero said they mentally will never be able to shake in their own minds one of the driving forces behind their success.

“We still consider ourselves as an underdog, probably always will,” he said. “We’ve been in regions with Buford, Gainesville, now (Greater Atlanta Christian) and we’re never been looked at as one of the top teams to beat. So every year we probably come in with a chip on our shoulder looking for that respect.”

There’s no doubt they found what they have been looking for. Only Ringgold and Morgan County (20) have more wins in Class AAA than the Trojans (18). They are being considered among a small group of teams with a legitimate chance to claim the Class AAA crown.

But you know what they also say: be careful what you wish for. Now, the Trojans are the ones with the targets on their back.

“Well we’re seeing everyone’s top pitchers and getting their best games,” Mongero said. “But that’s what you want and need to build a program and keep it there. We probably put together the toughest non-region schedule ever, at least since I’ve been here, for the program.

“We felt we had a good team coming into the season but we wanted to challenge them and bring out the best in them. I think (the tough non-region schedule) has really helped this group improve a lot.’

The Trojans have played six Class AAAAAAA teams this season, including No. 1 North Gwinnett in a tough 1-0 loss in 9 innings. They also beat then-Class AAAAA No. 1 Buford 9-3 in the second game of the season.

All of that has helped build to what may be the defining week of the season for the Trojans. North Hall (18-5, 11-1 Region 7-AAA) opens a critical three-game series with GAC (14-8, 9-2) on Monday in Norcross with first place on the line in Region 7-AAA. The two teams will head to Jody Davis Field on Wednesday and then back to Norcross on Friday.

With Region 7-AAA matching up with usually potent Region 5-AAA, home of defending AAA state champion Westminster, in the first round, Mongero said in essence the playoffs begin on Monday. Dawson County (15-7, 9-3) is lurking back in third place and North Hall will close out the regular season against the Tigers next week.

As things sit in 5-AAA heading into this week’s action, Westminster sits in third place, which means the No. 2 team in 7-AAA would open against the defending champs.

“A huge series,” he said. “It is extremely important to win the region this year. I feel as a region we can compete (with 5-AAA) but you don’t want to have to face a team like Westminster or Pace Academy in the first round.”

The key may well be the North Hall pitching staff, which has yielded just 53 total runs (2.30 ERA) and just 18 runs in region play (1.50 ERA). The Spartans have allowed 50 runs in region play alone (4.54 ERA). Junior Reese Olson, senior Corban Meeler, and sophomore Caleb Clark have been outstanding and durable all season combining to start all 23 games.

Olson has led North Hall on the mound in innings pitched (49.2), wins (8), ERA with more than 3 innings pitched (0.56), and strikeouts (61). Meeler is 5-2 with a 1.59 ERA and Clark is 3-0 with a 2.39 ERA. Mongero had yet to make a decision on his Game 1 starter as of Monday morning.

“This is the series we’ve been looking toward,” Olson said. “We’re going to have to pitch well and play good defense. I think on offense we can score some runs.”

Olson leads the team in RBI (21) while senior Taber Mongero leads the team in hits (29), average (.397), and in on-base plus slugging (OPS) with a ridiculous 1.004. Junior Charlie Erickson has both of the Trojans’ home runs.

“We’re not a home run hitting team,” Mongero said. “Our guys use the whole field. We have a measure called QAB (Quality at-bats) we use and this is one of the top teams I’ve had in that area. A lot of balance throughout the lineup. But we’ll need to make some things happen (against GAC) because I’m sure they’re going to throw their best arms at use. I expect a dogfight all three games.”

Olson, whose older brother Griffin was part of the 2013 team that fell just short against powerhouse Cartersville in the state finals, said the recognition of being No. 1 is nice but has not impacted their senior-laden team.

“It’s definitely cool to be ranked No. 1,” he said. “But we also know that means teams are gunning for us. But I don’t think any of us have really talked about it or anything.

“We feel like we have a good team. We feel like we have what it takes to make a deep run (in the playoffs). But we know we have to play well in every phase to be able to win. That’s really all we focus on, just one game at a time.”

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