GAINESVILLE — If it had been the Major Leagues, Las Vegas would have declined to even put a betting line on the North Hall baseball team’s 2019 playoff chances.
And why not. Over the final month of the regular season, the Trojans were without their top pitcher in senior Caleb Clark (shoulder), their starting center fielder in senior David Seavey (mono), and were forced to dig down deep into their reserves to play as many as three freshmen starters at times.
And, they were coming off an ugly doubleheader sweep at the hands of Fannin County that cost them the Region 7-3A title. In those two games, they committed eight errors leading to 13 unearned runs.
Just limping into the playoffs would have been considered a positive aspect at that point.
“We were facing a lot of adversity, which every team does, but a lot of things were going on at the same time,” North Hall coach Trevor Flow said. “We were not playing very well at the end of the (regular season). I’m sure most people were probably ready to write us off. I wouldn’t blame them based on that last (region) series.
“But we just decided that we were going to have a reset, so to speak. A refreshed mindset for the playoffs.”
Flow and his staff may want to patent whatever miracle salve they tapped into over the two weeks between the Fannin County debacle and the start of the Class 3A playoffs.
The Trojans, behind that renewed focus on the mound and in the field, survived tough three-game series’ against Coahulla Creek and 2018 state runner-up Westminster in the first two rounds at home. Then, last week, they hit the road and put together perhaps their finest two games of the season in a stunning, and dominating, sweep of Appling County, 11-2 and 10-0.
“We came out and hit the ball as well as we have all year,” Flow said. “The guys were ready to play.”
Despite not being able to take the mound, Clark, who doubles as a right-fielder, has not slowed down at the plate. In the Appling County series, he broke the team's single-season hits mark of 62 held by Taber Mongero (2017). Clark sits at 65 and still counting he and the Trojans hope.
Now, North Hall (21-14) will travel to familiar foe Pace Academy (23-6) on Tuesday in the semifinals looking for its second trip to the championship series in three seasons. First pitch for Tuesday’s doubleheader is set for 4:30 p.m. Game 3, if necessary, will be at 5 p.m. Wednesday in Atlanta.
It will be a rematch of the opening playoff series in 2017 that helped pave the way to the Trojans only state title. The Knights, who have been ranked No. 1 or 2 most of the season, are certain to remember the contentious three-game series that ended with a strikeout of a Pace batter as he was asking the umpire to call time. That series also featured the first of two Dylan Lavendar highlight-reel catches in centerfield to make the Top 10 on ESPN.
While most of the Knights’ roster is sure to remember, Clark is the only member of the 2019 North Hall squad that saw any action that season, but none in that series.
“Their coach (Donice Bloodworth) told me they are looking forward to this one,” Flow said. “He said it left a bad taste in their mouths. None of our kids this year even played in that series. Our guys on this year’s team may be about to suffer the wrath of something that they didn’t create.
“But that also means that, again, we don’t really have anything to lose as well. We’re underdogs for sure. Probably no one expects us to go down there and beat them.”
Pitching, defense, and youth have been the keys for the Trojans in the 2019 playoffs. Senior Kelton Kieschnick, who had pitched just three varsity innings until this season, has a 0.00 ERA in the playoffs. Junior Jackson Dyer had pitched just two-thirds of an inning and junior Wes Tadman had never gotten into a varsity game until this season. All three have earned wins in series clinchers so far in the 2019 playoffs.
After a mostly rough season in the field, the North Hall defense, which still has yet to play an errorless game in the playoffs, has made several key plays, however, to back up the pitching staff. They have had to play six freshmen at times and in the series opener against Appling County Flow was forced to start three freshmen, including catcher Jaret Bales, who was making just his second-ever start. He played four freshmen in the second game.
“For these young kids, you’re seeing how much talent they have,” Flow said. “They’ve gotten a lot of playing time this year with all of the injuries and things. There isn’t really an experience issue at this point.
“They’re going (to Pace) expecting to compete and have a chance to win the series. Honestly, even as good as Pace is, the way we’re playing right now, I’m not expecting a sweep either way.
“Pace may have the best offense (in Class 3A) but I feel like Westminster had a little better pitching. We were able to get past them. But because Pace is going to score some runs, we may have to score five or more runs to win.”
But, in each of the last two series against Westminster and Appling County, the prevailing thought was both would be offensive-minded. Instead, the Trojans allowed just 12 total runs (2.4 rpg) while going 4-1 in that span.
Kieschnick, Dyer, and Tadman could hold the key to the Trojans chances of getting another shot at a state title.
“Kiesch and Jackson have just been incredible in the playoffs,” Flow said. “Wes is unflappable out there for someone who hadn’t pitched at all in his career until this year. The way these guys have stepped up without Caleb has been the most impressive thing to me.
“But I still don’t think we've played a complete game yet this season. The positive thing is that these guys have gotten better every round. I can’t wait to see what they have in store (on Tuesday).
“I would not bet against them.”