FLOWERY BRANCH — For Flowery Branch shortstop Anthony Grutadaurio and the rest of the Falcons seniors, it has been a long, strange trip.
Not just for this season, but for their entire four-year careers. When the 2018 season began they were working under their third coach in three seasons with the arrival of Joey Ray (former Milton coach who won a state title with the Eagles in Class 6A in 2013).
However, Grutadaurio, a Emmanuel College-signee, said all the adversity and the constant change may be the driving force for the Falcons surprising run to the semifinals of the Class 5A baseball playoffs in 2018.
The Falcons have been Road Warriors taking down Villa Rica, Arabia Mountain, and Veterans away from Hog Mountain Sports Complex, the latter two as region champions. Flowery Branch is one of just three teams in all classifications to knock off a pair of region champs (Lovett in Class 3A and Jeff Davis in Class 2A) in the playoffs.
AccessWDUN sports reporter Jeff Hart talked to Grutadaurio on the eve of the Falcons’ biggest ever playoff series. The Falcons travel to arch-rival and fellow Region 8-5A foe Buford on Tuesday for the start of their best-of-three series with a berth in the championship series on the line.
(First pitch for Tuesday’s doubleheader has been moved from 5 p.m. to 3 p.m.)
QUESTION: With the arrival of Joey Ray at the beginning of the year, that made three head coaches in three seasons for the program. How difficult did all the changes make things for the seniors as y’all tried to get back to the playoffs?
ANSWER: Actually not as hard as you might think. We’re a very close group. We’ve been playing together, most of us, since the 6th or 7th grade. We really play for each other. I think because of all the changes we’ve been through (over the three years) we’re all able to adapt to new things pretty easy. Coach Ray sat us down and said he was going to teach us how to play the game to give us a chance to win. It took some time but now I think we’re all on the same page.
Q: What were your thoughts on this team heading into the season? What was your expectation?
A: I thought we could be pretty good even though we’re a pretty young team. We have (starting pitchers) Zander (Sechrist) and Andrew (Armstrong) and they are as good as anyone we’ve seen. They give us a chance every game. The offense took a little time to come around but that was because Coach Ray was teaching us how to do some things differently and play more as a team than individual guys coming to the plate. But we didn’t worry too much because we also have a great bullpen with guys like (JC) Sewell, (Zack) Wagner, and (Andrew) Curtin. Our goal was to make the playoffs and be right where we are. I felt we had a chance because of our pitching.
Q: At what point during the the season did you notice a change happening that something could be brewing? [The Falcons started the season 2-6.]
A: This may sound crazy but after the first two games when we got no-hit in both to start the season [by Mercer-signee Jeffrey Jenkins of West Hall and by Georgia Tech-signee Reese Olson of North Hall]. We knew we weren’t going to see (any pitchers) that would be any better than those two so it was really just everyone staying focused. Beating Loganville I could see some signs of turning the corner. But I think those last five games (of the regular season, sweeps of Cedar Shoals and Clarke Central and a win over playoff-bound Chestatee) especially against Chestatee when the bats came alive (in a 18-3 victory) and the defense really played well I felt like we were ready to do something. Then we went to Villa Rica and beat them on the road to open the playoffs. I think that showed the younger guys that we could hang with anyone. That was huge.
Q: And speaking of the playoffs, what has this run been like, especially for the seniors?
A: It has been an awesome ride so far, especially for the seniors. We’ve been waiting for this for four years so to be able to be a part of it and watch it has been fun. We’re all having fun playing and hanging out in the dugout. It’s hard to explain exactly what it means but right now we’re just focused on trying to win games and have fun at the same time. We know we've made history but we're not satisfied with just getting this far. We want to keep making history.
Q: So, what kind of series do you see against Buford? And do you think this team is capable of winning a state title, assuming you can get by the Wolves and with the spectre of possibly facing defending champion Loganville again?
A: First, Buford is a great team and they beat us twice so I’m sure they’ll come in with a lot of confidence. They can really hit the ball and they have excellent pitching. But we’ve seen great pitching all year. To beat them we just need to worry about controlling the things we can and just go out and play our game. Honestly, I think it’s anyone’s series. A couple of mistakes could decide it. If we can avoid making the big mistake, we definitely have a chance. The way we’re playing right now, I think we have as good a chance (of winning it all) as anyone left. Loganville is so good but we beat them once so we know we have the capability. Now, we just need to go out and prove it.