Once again, northeast Georgia showed it is still a baseball powerhouse in the state.
The 2018 season will go down as one of the most successful ever for area teams as one team -- Jefferson -- came away with a title (Class 4A); one other, Buford, lost in the championship series (Class 5A); and a third, Flowery Branch, advanced to the semifinal round (Class 5A).
It was the second consecutive season with an area team capturing a championship and third time in the last four seasons.
More than a dozen area teams, 14 to be exact, advanced to the state playoffs with seven advancing at least to the second round. Three made it into the quarterfinals and then the semifinals, with Jefferson and Buford both earning their way in the championship round. In all, northeast Georgia teams won 16 of 29 best-of-three series in the 2018 playoffs.
Jefferson’s title win, the first for the program in its history, was no fluke. The Dragons swept No. 1-nationally ranked Blessed Trinity in the Final Four and then held off perennial power Cartersville in a brilliant Game 3 win in the championship series. In a brutal Class 4A bracket, few gave the Dragons a chance. But senior hurler Patrick Hickox went undefeated in the playoffs and won both games for the Dragons in the championship series.
Meanwhile, Buford lost to now two-time defending Class 5A state champion Loganville. A young Wolves team was not considered a title contender at the start of the season but found a groove midway through the season and rode solid pitching from Ramsey David and Sean Adams into the finals.
But even for those that did not advance to the Final Four, it took championship-level talent to send home northeast Georgia teams. North Hall, the 2017 Class 3A state champion, lost to eventual 2018 champion Lovett in a classic nail-biting three-game series where two games went to extra innings.
The Falcons lost to Buford in the Class 5A semifinals but it took two last at-bat victories by the Wolves to knock them out. Chestatee took the eventual champion Dragons to three games in the first round before succumbing. West Hall lost to North Oconee and the nation’s top pitching prospect Kumar Rocker.
To make the feats even more remarkable was that several high-profile programs were under new management. Buford and Flowery Branch both had new skippers as the Wolves brought in former Cartersville coach Stuart Chester while former Milton coach Joey Ray, who led the Eagles to a title in 2013, took over the Falcons and led them to their furthest playoff run in program history. North Hall also sported a new head coach in long-time assistant Trevor Flow, who guided a squad with just two returning lettermen to a Region 7-3A title.
In Class 6A, Gainesville lost to state runner-up Allatoona in the second round. For the Red Elephants, it was a bittersweet ending as it was the final game for long-time coach/assistant Jeremy Kemp, who announced before the season started he was leaving to start the new Cherokee Bluff program next season.
In Class 2A, Rabun County was knocked off by semifinalist Callaway, who then took eventual state champion Benedictine to three games.
Individually, we will say goodbye to some oustanding talent as nearly two dozen players signed to play at the collegiate level. Most notably, North Hall right-hander Reese Olson leaves as the Trojans all-time wins leader and is headed to Georgia Tech. West Hall right-hander Jeffrey Jenkins will ply his wares at Mercer. The pair of hurlers got the season started with a bang as they both tossed no-hitters in their first starters of the season, ironically both coming against Flowery Branch. Buford first baseman Noah Ledford, who was part of three Wolves team to make the state finals, is headed to Georgia Southern.
Several teams, like Buford, Flowery Branch, and Fannin County, all should return the bulk of young rosters in 2019. After a surprising, and successful, 2018 season, we’re hoping for even better returns next season.