If the time-tested belief that strong pitching is the foundation on which championships are built, then the small but potent contingent of northeast Georgia area teams still alive in the GHSA baseball playoffs should be taken very, very seriously.
Buford, Flowery Branch, and North Hall all put on mound displays last week in the first round of their respective classifications that had many around the state taking more than just a passing fancy. Lakeview Academy, which has yet to take the field after receiving a first-round in Class A Private, has former Atlanta Brave star Kevin Millwood as its pitching coach and has several quality, and rested, arms, led by Andrew Estes, ready to be unleashed. Commerce, which is known more for its clubbing offense, has given up three-runs of less in every game during a four-game win streak, including a sweep of Crawford County last week in Class A Public.
North Hall coach Trevor Flow, who has had to navigate the Trojans through the treacherous Class 3A waters without his ace lefty Caleb Clark the past month, said he was not surprised by what he saw in the opening round around the area.
“There is no doubt there are some great arms in this area,” Flow said. “You look at the two kids at Branch and Buford, those guys are all impressive, not just for this area but in the entire Southeast (United States). I truly feel that baseball in this area on the mound is in great shape.”
Buford coach Stuart Chester, who spent most of his career in Cartersville and who earlier this year joined the exclusive 600-win club, said he has been impressed since moving a quadrant over in the state.
“The (northeast Georgia) area as a whole I think is probably better than most people think it is,” Chester said. “Those two guys at Branch are as good as anybody in the state. There are a lot of outstanding pitchers around here and not just for the teams that are left.”
Buford allowed just three runs in a dominating first round sweep of Arabia Mountain in Class 5A, paced by seniors Ramsey David (Auburn-signee) and Sean Adams (Georgia Southern-signee).
But Chester said they are much more than just a two-man show.
“We also have guys Riley Stanford, CJ Couch, and Dylan Lesko that have really thrown the ball well. Our pitching staff has come a long way,’ Chester said. “I feel they are a seasoned group when you think of last year [a loss to Loganville in the Class 5A state championship series] and the schedule we have played this year. They have been a very efficient group, throwing a lot of first strikes and having a strikeout-to-walks ratio of better than 3-to-1. But I also think our defense, which has been very good this year, has given them help. And not having too many four-out innings and things like that plays a big part.”
Flowery Branch coach Joey Ray may possess the most dangerous No. 3 seed in the state regardless of classification. The Falcons are paced by juniors Andrew Armstrong (Florida State-commit) and Zander Sechrist (Tennessee-commit) who combined to allow just two runs last week leading a sweep of 2018 state semifinalist Heritage-Catoosa on the road in the first round of the Class 4A playoffs.
The pair of southpaws atop the Falcons rotation helped lead them to a semifinal appearance in Class 5A in 2018 and both look to be in playoff mode already.
“They both have shutout stuff everytime they go out on the mound,” Ray said of Armstrong and Sechrist. “Both are different but both also have that common thread that they just love to compete. They threw really well last week.”
But like Chester, Ray said they are not a two-man operation.
“We’re definitely more than just those two,” he said. “(Sophomore) Anthony Woeltje has been great all year kind of in a closer role and our No. 3 guy, Zack Wagner, is a four-year letterman who can change speeds and locate his pitches really well. We also have a freshman lefty in Jake Beaver that has stepped up. In a 14-inning game against Denmark, in a game we had to have, Jake went seven innings and did not give up a run.
“We feel we have enough arms to be able to compete with anyone. But to me the best thing is that we are still a very young team overall and these guys are only going to get better.”
North Hall has certainly had its share of top-of-the-rotation guys like Preston Graham and Reese Olson over the past few years. Clark, a senior, has been the foundation for most of the season until a nagging injury has kept him off the mound since late in the regular season. Which made the Trojans’ three-game series win over Coahulla Creek last week in the Class 3A playoffs all the more impressive.
Without the services of Clark, North Hall got consecutive complete-game performances from senior Kelton Kieschnick and juniors Jackson Dyer and Wes Tadman, who allowed just three total runs in the series.
“For us, our just buying in and competing right now is the biggest thing,” Flow said. “I think all three of our guys feel like they need to do a little more since we don’t have Caleb. Kieschnick usually rises to the occasion and he was excellent. Wes, who has battled injuries most of his high shool career, is just one cool, calm, and collected guy. He is really just now learning how to pitch.
“The guy I was the most impressed by was Jackson. He just battled and battled without his best stuff. I knew they were capable of doing that but it was great to see it come together like that when we needed it the most.”
And Flow is still unsure of when, or if, he will have the services of Clark in the second round or beyond.
“Caleb is as good as anybody I’ve mentioned from Branch or Buford or anyone else. We won’t know if he is available probably until the day of the series,” he said. “If Caleb can’t go we’re going to need another performance like last week from the rest of the guys. I know they’re capable so we’ll just see what happens.”
All five of the remaining northeast Georgia area teams, however, face stiffer competition in the second round. Buford travels to Kell while Flowery Branch heads to perennial power Cartersville, which lost in the Class 4A championship series to Jefferson in 2018.
North Hall is playing at Jody Davis Field but faces always-pesky Westminster, who won the Class 3A state title in 2016. Lakeview Academy opens its first playoffs since 2009 at home against fellow Region 8-A foe Hebron Christian while Commerce travels to Pelham in Class A Public.
When asked, both Chester and Ray said the old baseball adage still rings true and that there is plenty of optimism for area teams to take with them into the Sweet 16 round.
“Good pitching beats good hitting and vice versa. But to me, the guy on the mound can really set the tone for a series. I think all (of the area) teams left have guys that can do that,” Chester said.
“I believe that pitching and defense, no matter the level, is what wins games,” Ray said. “I definitely feel that the teams left have the pitching depth to keep going.”