Saturday July 24th, 2021 4:54PM

2020 baseball preview: Is anyone ready for a breakout season?

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter

The 2019 baseball season was supposed to be somewhat of a rebuilding year for many northeast Georgia teams.

That didn’t stop several from making title runs anyway. A pair of teams also made playoff runs for the first time in a decade.

Jefferson (Region 8-3A) and Lakeview Academy (Region 8-A) won their respective region titles. For the Lions, it also was their first playoff experience in 10 years. 

Buford finished as runner-up in Region 8-5A to eventual state champion Loganville. North Hall finished second in a tough Region 7-3A despite a slew of graduations and the few remnants left from its 2017 state title team.

Teams like Flowery Branch improved a spot in a brutal Region 7-4A while Habersham Central advanced to just its second-ever playoffs in Region 8-6A.

The 2020 season, which gets set to open this week around the area and state, could resemble 2019, at least early on as several teams look to be in a rebuilding, or reloading, mode.

Buford, Flowery Branch, and Jefferson all should be in the mix for possible region titles while second-year program Cherokee Bluff, which made the playoffs in its inaugural season, may already be poised for a breakout season. North Hall, a surprise semifinalist in 2019, has some pieces to replace but also should be in the hunt for another deep run.

Below is our annual look at area teams as they get ready to embark on another season:

(Teams listed in alphabetical order. Teams not listed could not be reached for information.)

-- COACH, YEARS AT SCHOOL: Peyton Hart, 3rd season (35-25)
-- REGION: 8-2A
-- 2019 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 23-8, 1st round Class 2A playoffs
-- KEY PLAYERS: Sr. OF/P Caden Cotton (.325 BA, 1 HR, 21 SB), Sr. UTL/P Justin Whitehead (.495 BA, 3 HR, 26 RBI), Sr. C Parker Hobson (.367 BA), Sr. INF/P Dylan Greenway (.300 BA, 20 RBI), Sr. UTL/P Braxton Simpson (.337 BA, 18 RBI, 16 SB), Sr. OF/P Kobe Westmorland (.333 BA, 22 SB), So. OF/P Tripp Williams, Jr. SS/P Ty Burchett, Jr. INF Jonathon Moon
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Leopards should be in the playoff hunt again with 8 returning starters and 5 others that contributed significantly in 2019. They have what should be a deep pitching staff with the experience to go with a lineup that features a high average and plenty of speed. Whitehead should be one of the top players in what is expected to be a tough region again.

-- COACH, YEARS AT SCHOOL: Stuart Chester, 3rd season, 53-23 (617-149 overall)
-- REGION: 8-5A
-- 2019 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 26-10, Region 8-5A runner-up, Class 5A quarterfinals, won the PG High School Showcase in Hoover, Ala.
-- KEY PLAYERS: So. SS/P Dylan Lesko (1.08 ERA in 2019, No. 1 rated player in USA by Perfect Game for 2022 class), So. OF/P Riley Stanford (Can hit upper-90s on the mound and has power at the plate, No. 5 prospect for the 2022 class), So. UTL/P Jackson Gaspard (can play every position on the field, ranked in top 10 for 2022), Sr. C Joseph Salvo (Samford-signee, .395 BA in 2019, has average and power at the plate), Sr. 3B/OF Eli Ledford, Jr. UTL/P Treyton Rank (new to the program and was a key cog for the Wolves championship football team, a Florida State-commit in baseball as a utility player that is considered a 5-tool player and will attract MLB attention as a senior), Jr. OF/1B Adyen Digiacomo, Sr. 1B Greg Johnson
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Wolves are loaded but the strength of the team should be its pitching staff with Lesko and Sanford atop the rotation. They can hit for average and have more power than in recent years. But they are still housed in the same region as defending state champion Loganville. They may have their best pitching staff to try and match the Red Devils in what should be a fun battle for the region title. They will play a tough non-region schedule, which includes defending Class 7A state champ Parkview, along with Hoover, (Ala.), Lagrange, Mill Creek, and Brookwood.

-- COACH, YEARS AT SCHOOL: Jeremy Kemp, 2nd season
-- REGION: 7-3A
-- 2019 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 16-15, first-round Class 3A playoffs
-- KEY PLAYERS: Sr. C Jackson Kemp, Sr. P Carsen Plumadore, Jr. P/OF Dylan Kautz, So. P/INF Chandler Shope, Sr. OF Tino Mukono, Sr. OF Jacob Carlson, Jr. 3B/P Tyler Zawacki, So. 1B/P Caleb Piland, So. 2B/3B/P Brody Beal, Jr. INF/P Reece Chambers, Jr. 1B/C Ben Jenkins, Fr. C/3B Bryce England 
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Bears set a high bar quickly as a program making it to the Class 3A playoffs in their first-ever season. They also should have little drop off with 9 returning players that started 20 games or more. But they also are in a tough region that figures to be even tougher in 2020 from top to bottom. Kemp, Plumadore, and Shope give them a solid staff that should keep them in the running the entire way. 

-- COACH, YEARS AT SCHOOL: Jon Brewer, 4th season
-- REGION: 7-4A
-- 2019 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 13-13, missed the playoffs on tiebreaker rule
-- KEY PLAYERS: Sr. P Benson Miller (3.43 ERA, 55 IP, .320 BA, 19 SB), Jr. P Clay Tyas (closer, throws in the 90s), Sr. C Phillip Lemay (4-year starter, .288 BA), Sr. CF Caleb Carter (3-year starter, .336 BA), Sr. Robbie James (.260 BA), Jr. Hunter Potzner, So. Nolan Turner, So. Nathan Bull
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The War Eagles only lost two seniors from a team that was one of the best teams in the state to not make the playoffs in 2019. Overall they will be a young group again in 2020 but have some quality upperclassmen in Miller, Carter, and James to provide leadership in a tough region. Chestatee showed it can compete beating state runner-up Denmark, Flowery Branch, and lost a pair of walk-offs to both Blessed Trinity and Marist. They should have one of the best staffs in the area with Miller and Tyas and the offense has speed but will need to find a little more consistency and pop at the plate. They should be right in the playoff mix once again.

-- COACH, YEARS AT SCHOOL: Steve Cotrell, 12th season
-- REGION: 8-A
-- 2019 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 22-13, Class A Public Elite 8
-- KEY PLAYERS: Sr. SS Colby Rogers (.395 BA, 18 SB, 1st team All-State Georgia Dugout Magazine), Sr. P Nate Ray (4-year starter on the mound), Sr. OF/P Kody Mintz (.356 BA, .451 OBP)
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Tigers bring several experienced guys back from last year's quarterfinals team, including Rogers and Ray, who will be expected to lead them once again. However, they may have to rely on several juniors who saw action last year but will now be looked upon to fill some key spots as starters. They will have depth at most positions but they will need to find some early success before diving into the always-tough Region 8-A schedule. Ray gives them a guy who can beat anyone but finding some quality innings behind him may be the key to how far they can go in 2020.

-- COACH, YEARS AT SCHOOL: Dwayne Sapp, 5th season
-- REGION: 7-3A
-- KEY PLAYERS: Sr. Hudson Sapp (.582 BA, 6 HR, 22 RBI), Sr. Bo Lewis (.339 BA, 2 HR, 31 RBI), Sr. TJ Allen (.294 BA, 1 HR, 14 RBI), Sr. Kiristian Kelley (.296 BA, 12 RBI)
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Tigers missed out on the playoffs by one game in 2019 and return 8 of their 9 starters from last season’s young and inexperienced team. They are still a young group and will need to build some early momentum before entering region play. However, Coach Sapp said the defense, which was an issue in 2019, will be better and they have a lineup that can score. The key will be if they can find enough pitching in a region that has been known for quality on the mound. If they can find consistency on the mound after Hudson Sapp, they could be in the playoff chase again.

-- COACH, YEARS AT SCHOOL: Eric Fowler, 4th season
-- REGION: 7-3A
-- KEY PLAYERS: Sr. P/SS T.J. Smith (57 IP, 4.80 ERA, 34 K), Sr. UTL Taylor Smith (2019 1st-team All region, .306 BA, 4 SB), Sr. UTL Josh Medina (.587 OPS), Jr. C Luke England (.230 BA, .668 OPS, 9 RBI), Jr. 2B/OF Mikey Parker (.387 OPS), Jr. 1B Alex Brock (.503 OPS, 9 RBI)
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Vikings will have to replace three key starters from a year ago, including a 4-year starter at catcher and a first-team all-region pitcher who tossed 62 innings. The offense, which struggled to score runs in a tough pitching league, should be improved. But they will be young on the mound and inexperienced at several key spots. The key to any playoff chase could depend on how quickly their young players adapt to the speed of the varsity game.

-- COACH, YEARS AT SCHOOL: Scott Myers, 2nd season
-- REGION: 8-3A
-- 2019 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 12-16. 1st round Class 3A playoffs
-- KEY PLAYERS: Sr. INF/P Halton Hardy, Sr. INF/C/P Caleb Adair, Sr. OF/P Cole Sealey, Sr. C/OF/3B Jake Varner, Sr. OF/P Josh Compton
-- SEASON OUTLOOK:  The Eagles are coming off their best season and first postseason campaign in program history and they have most of that group returning in 2020. Pitching is always the key and they return the bulk of their staff led by a slew of upperclassmen. If they stay healthy, they should be able to compete for a playoff spot once again in a very tough Region 8-3A.

-- COACH, YEARS AT SCHOOL: Joey Ray, 3rd season
-- REGION: 7-4A
-- 2019 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 16-14-2, 2nd round Class 4A playoffs
-- KEY PLAYERS: Sr. P/1B Andrew Armstrong (FSU-commit), Sr. P/OF Zander Sechrist (Tennessee-commit), Sr. OF Grant Lackey (Lee University-commit), Jr. INF Connor Larson, Jr. INF JB Bell, Jr. C/INF/P Kaleb Freeman, So. OF/P Jake Beaver, So. INF/C/P Baxley O’Brien
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Falcons, especially with Armstrong and Sechrist on the mound, proved they can compete with anyone in the state in 2019. Nothing should change in 2020 as the two highly-recruited southpaws return to anchor a solid staff. Offense, however, was an issue at times. With a year under their belts, they should be more consistent at the plate in 2020 and will need to be if they want to make a run at Denmark, Blessed Trinity and Marist in a brutal region. But they should once again be in the middle of the playoff race to compete for the region title and make a run in the playoffs.

-- COACH, YEARS AT SCHOOL: Adam Miller, 2nd season (9-20)
-- REGION: 8-6A
-- KEY PLAYERS: Sr. P/SS Zach Valentine, Sr. P/OF Harris Bell, Sr. P/OF Grady Vardeman, Sr. P/3B Eudy Medina
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Red Elephants are looking to rebound from a disappointing 2019 season that saw their long playoff streak come to an end. They have a small but talented senior class returning, led by two-way players Valentine and Bell. Valentine returns after being injured and missing most of his junior season and will start at SS when not on the mound. Bell, a Delta State-signee, will also be a top-of-the-rotation guy and a starter in the outfield. Vardeman and Medina will also contribute on the mound. With Valentine back and healthy the Red Elephants could be back in the playoff mix in what is expected to be a tough Region 8-6A once again.

-- COACH, YEARS AT SCHOOL: Chris Akridge, 11th season
-- REGION: 8-6A
-- 2019 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 19-13, 1st round Class 6A playoffs, 2nd-ever state playoff appearance
-- KEY PLAYERS: Jr. P/3B Logan Hare, So. P/INF Logan Bogue, So. OF Azzi Cervantes, Jr. P Sutton Dover, Jr. P/INF Rhett Addis, Jr. P/OF Trevor Stevens, Jr. P Austin Jones, Sr. C Christian King, Sr. C Andy Anderson, Sr. OF Ryte Woodruff, Sr. OF Clay Carruth, Sr. INF Peyton Lewallen, Sr. INF Drew Erwin 
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Raiders will have some holes to fill after the graduation of five key players, including Miami-signee Alex McFarlane. They have some good young talent but it could take some time for Coach Akridge to get all the pieces in the right places. However, they got a taste of postseason success in 2019 and could be in line to make another playoff run by season's end.

-- COACH, YEARS AT SCHOOL: Matt Bolt, 2nd season
-- REGION: 8-3A
-- KEY PLAYERS: Jr. RHP/OF Ayden Griswold, Jr. INF/P Kedric Zimmer, Sr. P/INF Grant Hardegree, Sr. P/OF Tyler Zipfel, Jr. C/OF Bradley Pruiett, Sr. C/INF/OF CJ Bozeman, Sr. P/INF Bryce Beverly, Sr. OF Jonathan Steeb, Sr. P/OF Ben Wiley
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Panthers could be a wild card in the region with the bulk of their pitching staff back but also will sport a half-dozen or more new additions to the varsity squad. Overall they will be young and inexperienced at spots but the pitching staff could be their strongest group since their 2016 Final Four run. They will play a brutal non-region schedule as they prepare for a tough Region 8-3A. If the pitching holds up, they should be in the middle of the playoff race throughout.

-- COACH, YEARS AT SCHOOL: Tommy Knight, 20th season (540-390 overall record)
-- REGION: 8-3A
-- 2019 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 25-3, Region 8-3A champion, 1st round Class 3A playoffs
-- KEY PLAYERS: Jr. C Mason Cooper, Sr. 1B Trey McEver, Jr. SS Cole Watkins, Jr. 2B JJ Rapp, Jr. OF Rem Maxwell, Sr. P/OF Brycen Jewell, Sr. OF Kade McNally, Sr. RHP Jackson Perry, Sr. RHP Kallon Cook, Sr. RHP Jasper Adamek, Sr. OF Hayden Phillips, Jr. OF Nick Sellers, Jr. INF Landon Richards, Jr. OF Jake Walker, Jr. RHP Austin Bell
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Dragons were stunned by a hot Westminster team in last year's playoffs and will use that as a motivator with a group that has experience throughout the roster and talent on the mound, at the plate, and in the field. They should contend for another region title in a very tough and deep Region 8-3A field. Several seniors were on the Knights’ 2018 state title team and that experience could also be a factor late in the season.

-- COACH, YEARS AT SCHOOL: Mike Holland, 2nd season
-- REGION: 8-5A
-- KEY PLAYERS: So. P/1B Peyton Lavergne (.405 BA, 3.46 ERA), So. P/OF/1B Tristan Nguyen (.422 BA, 3.35 ERA, 90 K), Sr. C James Lancaster, Jr. P/SS Josh Lopez, P/OF Robbie Brady
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Knights were one of the youngest teams in the area starting as many as four freshmen at times. They return a lot of that talent that Coach Holland thinks may be ready to turn the corner. They have the makings of a good young rotation with Lavergne and Nguyen that could keep them in games. But they will need to find some offense in a region that features a half-dozen Division I arms. If the young talent continues to improve, they could more than double their win total from a year ago and challenge for a playoff spot by season’s end. 

-- COACH, YEARS AT SCHOOL: Deuce Roark, 21st season
-- REGION: 8-A
-- 2019 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 19-6,  Region 8-A champions, 2nd round Class A Private playoffs
-- KEY PLAYERS: Sr. SS/P Andrew Estes (preseason All-State, .471 BA, 18 RBI, 37 R; 44.2 IP, 1.41 ERA, 55 K, 8 BB Furman-commit), Sr. C/P/ INF Sam Stewart (preseason All-State, .408 BA, 1 HR, 24 RBI, 23 R, Mercer-commit), Jordan Thomas  OF/P (BA. 359 R 18 RBI 28), Sr. OF/P Holden Cooper (.353 BA, 10RBI, 20 R; 49.1 IP, 1,70 ERA, 42 K, 18 BB), Jr. INF/P Skyler Thellman (.289 BA, 20 RBI, 12 R; 6.1 IP, 1.11 ERA, 7 K, 3 BB), Jr. INF/P Parker Allen(.290 BA, 12 RBI, 11 R,; 9.0 IP, 2.33 ERA, 10 K, 8 BB), Jr. C/P/OF Will Edwards, So. Tanner Allen, Jr. Conley Millwood
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Lions have an experienced group returning, led by Estes and Stewart at the top of the rotation, which could be the best in Region 8-A. They also have Edwards back, who was injured all last year, which gives them depth at three positions. Tanner Allen and Millwood, who both came on strong at the end of last year, also return. They play a difficult non-region schedule, which should help get them ready for a tough Region 8-A tilt. They should be be in the running again for a region title and a top seed in the playoffs once again.

-- COACH, YEARS AT SCHOOL: Jonathan Gastley, 2nd season
-- REGION: 7-3A
-- KEY PLAYERS: Sr. Dalton Caldwell, Sr. Nick Turner, Sr. Logan Choflet, Sr. Tucker Kirk, Sr. Harris Taylor, Sr. Chase Beamon
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Indians put in a solid season in 2019 despite being in a rebuilding mode with a new coach in the always-tough Region 7-3A. They return just four starters but have plenty of upperclassman experience. They narrowly missed out on the state playoffs with an "at-large" bid in the power rankings last season. If they continue their upward trend they could once again challenge for a playoff spot in both the region and the power rankings.

-- COACH, YEARS AT SCHOOL: Trevor Flow, 3rd season
-- REGION: 7-3A
-- 2019 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 21-16, Region 7-3A runner-up, Class 3A Final Four
-- KEY PLAYERS: Sr. INF/P Tyler Brooks (preseason All-State) Sr. INF/P Jackson Dyer (.358 BA, 2020 preseason All-State, 2019 1st team All-State pitcher, 5-2, 3.04 ERA), Sr. OF/P Wes Tadman (2020 preseason All-State, 2019 2nd team All-State pitcher, 5-3, 1.60 ERA), Sr. INF/P Jack Wiley, Sr.INF/P Zach Warwick, Sr. C/INF Caden Bales, Sr. OF/P Caleb Payne
 -- SEASON OUTLOOK:  The Trojans made a big playoff run in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year in 2019. They return several key pieces from that group, but also have several key spots to fill. They will need a consistent No. 3 behind Dyer and Tadman and expect to see several lineup combinations early as Flow looks for the right mix at the plate. The Trojans will have to rely on a lot of young talent, but if they get acclimated quickly they should have a chance to compete for a playoff spot once again.

-- COACH, YEARS AT SCHOOL: Wesley Satterfield, 1st season
-- REGION: 8-2A
-- KEY PLAYERS: Sr. INF/P Jon Sego, JR. C/P Brady Wilson, Jr. OF Brody Jarrard, So. INF Gunner Stockton, So INF/P Grayson Carver, So INF/P Garrett Horton
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Wildcats are looking to make their way back into the playoffs after missing out last year. They have a strong balance of veteran upperclassmen as well as a talented group of underclassmen. Pitching will be a key in a tough region where six of the eight teams should be in the playoff chase.

-- COACH, YEARS AT SCHOOL: Chad Sage, 1st season
-- REGION: 8-A
-- KEY PLAYERS: Jr.INF/P Ruben Barahona, Sr. CF/SS/P Jesse Crandall, Jr. SS/P Ron Edgecombe, Jr. 3B/P Caleb Deeter, Sr. C/1B Cade King
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Eagles are under new management with former West Hall coach Chad Sage, who guided the Spartans to the playoffs in three of his four seasons in Oakwood. RMA returns just one starter from last year’s group and it may take some time for Sage and his charges to find out just what they have. They play in the always-tough Region 8-A so they won’t have too much time before diving into a tough schedule that includes East Hall, West Hall, and White County in non-region play as well as region foes Lakeview Academy, Hebron Christian, and the rest of 8-A. Sage said the goal in Season 1 is to take things “one game at a time” as they try to position themselves for a hopeful playoff run.

-- COACH, YEARS AT SCHOOL: Zach Odom, 2nd season
-- REGION: 8-2A
-- 2019 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 14-12, 1st round Class 2A playoffs
-- KEY PLAYERS: Jr. 1B/P Zeke Swartz (5-1, 1.35 ERA, 79 SO, 8 BB / .350 BA, 16 RBI, 15 R), Jr. INF/P Isaak Mullinack (3.22 ERA, 43 SO, 15 BB / .354 BA, .495 OBP, 25 R), Sr. 1B/3B Cayden Rich (.357 BA, .956 OPS), Sr. C/3B Carter Wright, Sr. Alec Youngblood
-- OUTLOOK: The Panthers return 7 starters from last year’s playoff team and should be poised for even bigger things in 2020. They return the core of their pitching staff with Mullinack, Swartz, and Austin Garrison, as well as several key pieces in the lineup in with Swartz, Mullinack, Rich, Youngblood, and Wright. Region 8-2A is tough but the experience they bring back could have them challenging for a top spot by season's end.

-- COACH, YEARS AT SCHOOL: Brannon Humphries, first season
-- REGION: 7-4A
-- KEY PLAYERS: Sr. P/1B Avery Milligan, Sr. P/OF Hunter Samples, Sr. P/OF Canaan Koger, Jr. INF Kyle Murphy, Jr. INF/P Braden Simms, Jr. P/C/OF Tyler Maynard,  Jr. C/INF/OF Jackson Cooper,  So. P/OF/1B Matthew Griffin, So. 3B Michael Gaddy, So. P/3B Nick Sturm, So. 2B Ryan Svetz
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: New coach Humphries is no stranger to the program, having worked as an assistant the past four seasons, three of which were playoff runs. The Spartans return a solid core of young players but may have to rely on their upperclassmen. They have some experience on the mound with Milligan, Samples, and Koger but the defense was an issue at times in 2019. If they can improve in the field and find a little more offense they could put themselves in the playoff chase in a brutal region.

-- COACH, YEARS AT SCHOOL: Jim Waits, 3rd year
-- REGION: 7-4A
-- KEY PLAYERS: Sr. P Connor McGuire (4-3, 3.37 ERA, 40 K), Sr. 3B Riley Norton (.280 BA), Jr. SS J. Ben Haynes (.411 BA, 13 RBI, 9 SB), Jr. OF/C, Evan Chambers (.323 BA), So. OF/INF Jake Johnson (.340 BA, 11 RBI), So. C Dylan Sargent
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Warriors have a young, talented team this year but will have to replace two All-Region players in Jared Johnson (TMU-signee) and Sawyer Loggins (Shorter-signee) from last year’s squad in a brutally tough region. McGuire will be the leader on the mound and they will need some quality innings from guys like Blake Kelley, Bailee Patterson, Caleb Reddy, Johnson, and Fr. Kyler Mayo. Defense was an issue at times in 2019 but they have several returnees that should be improved in both the infield and outfield. Chambers and Sargent will split the catching duties, though Sargent caught a majority of the games last year. The outfield will be a battle between Jr. Caleb Gee, Johnson, Jr. Rylee Higgins, Chambers, and McGuire when he is not on the mound. Sr. Justin Ward should get the opening nod at DH. If the Warriors can find consistent innings on the mound behind McGuire and improve in the field, they could be in the playoff race by season's end.

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