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2024 baseball preview: Uncertainty abounds as season approaches for NEGa area teams

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter
Posted 7:05AM on Thursday 8th February 2024 ( 2 months ago )

Probably more than any other, baseball was profoundly affected by the Georgia High School Association reclassification in 2023.

In 2022, three northeast Georgia area teams advanced to the semifinals across the eight different classifications. After the reclass, which saw several juggernaut regions form, only two area teams managed to get out of the second round -- East Forsyth in Class 4A and Towns County in Class A Division 2 -- and none made it past the quarterfinals in 2023.

In all fairness, several powerhouse programs, including Buford and North Hall, were in rebuild mode after deep playoff runs the year before. Others changed head coaches and were acclimating.

So, what will the 2024 season hold in store? Much like last season, it’s anyone’s guess. The GHSA season offically opens on Monday.

Among some of the notable openers on Monday, Gainesville will play host to Flowery Branch at Ivey-Watson while North Hall entertains Jackson County at Lynn Cottrell Field. Cherokee Bluff has Denmark at home, Buford plays host to Grayson at Gerald McQuaig Stadium, and North Forsyth travels to Walton.

Regions like 8-4A, which had brought together two state champions in North Oconee and North Hall, are still intact, as is an even more challenging 8-5A, which houses powerhouses Loganville, Jefferson, Winder-Barrow, along with Flowery Branch and Eastside. Those five teams combined for 119 wins in 2023.

Some of the programs that were battling youth, like North Hall, are a year older. Surprise teams like Lumpkin County, which broke an eight-year playoff drought and tied its program record for wins, also return the bulk of its team.

 Two playoff teams -- Flowery Branch and Banks County -- are sporting new head coaches. Three more -- Chestatee, East Hall, Union County -- also have replaced head coaches.

As always, pitching rules and if some of the teams that were breaking in new rotations in 2023 can get the improvement needed, 2024 could see a return of northeast Georgia programs in the playoffs.

(Below are the previews for our area teams we received information on to jump-start the 2024 campaign, listed in alphabetical order:)


BANKS COUNTY
COACH/YEARS AT SCHOOL: Jared Jones, 1st season
REGION: 8-2A
2023 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 17-13, Region 8-2A runner-up, Class 2A playoffs
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Sr. INF Andrew Humphries, Sr. INF John Faulkner (Kentucky Christian University commit), Sr. P/UTIL Colin Caudell, Jr. P Judd Spear (Preseason All State, Georgia Tech commit), Jr. OF Aucy Jacobs, Jr.P Chase Morrison, Jr. OF Cam Cooper, Jr. OF/P Trevor Cox, Jr. OF/P Austin Anderson, So. SS Owen Miller, So. C/P Gaven Sears, Fr. C/INF Judd Schmakel
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Leopards graduated six starters from last season, but with the return of Spear at the top of the rotation and Faulkner leading the offense, look for the Leopards to challenge once again for a region title. Fellowship Christian, which won the region and was a semifinalist last season, is expected to be the team to beat again in 8-2A.


BUFORD
-- COACH/YEARS AT SCHOOL: Stuart Chester, 7th season
-- REGION: 8-2A
-- 2023 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 19-15, Region 8-7A champions, Class 7A 2nd round playoffs
-- KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Sr. P/1B Nate Taylor, Jr. C/P Cannon Goldin, Sr. INF Madden Young, Sr. SS Ethan Murray, Sr. 2B Blake Russel, Sr. C Sam Humphrey, So. OF Ayden Lockett
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Wolves won a region title their first time out in the state's highest classification in 2023 but also suffered their earliest playoff exit since 2017. They have seven starters back and will look to their senior leaders as they try to produce another deep playoff run.


CHEROKEE BLUFF
-- COACH/YEARS AT SCHOOL: Jeremy Kemp, 6th season
-- REGION: 8-4A
-- 2023 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 28-5, Region 8-4A runner-up, Class 4A 2nd round playoffs
-- KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Sr. C/OF Ty Corbin, Sr. C/OF Caleb Miele, Sr. INF/P Jacob Vokal, Jr. INF/P Landon Kemp, Jr. UTL, Jr. P Tucker Holton, Jr. P Gabe Gowder, Jr. 1B Garrett Harper, So. INF Ethan England, Sr. P Jack Sparks, Sr. Tanaka Mukono
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Bears graduated two huge bats in Bryce England (Georgia Southern) and Brett House (Mississippi State) but return the bulk of their pitching and defense, and five of their top eight hitters in the lineup. They will have the pitching and the offense. Defense was the issue down the stretch. If they can improve defensively, they can not only compete for a playoff spot but for a region title.


CHESTATEE
-- COACH/YEARS AT SCHOOL: Griffin Olson, 1st season
-- REGION: 8-4A
-- 2023 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 14-14
-- KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Ex: Sr. Cam Davis 3B/P
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: Sr. LHP/OF Jake Hitchcock, Sr. UTL/RHP Dylan Thompson, Sr. OF/RHP Colton Wilbanks, Sr. IF/RHP Joshua Bull, Sr. LHP/1B/OF Brock Moody, Sr. RHP/OF Wes Gossett, Jr. IF/C Eli Chaffin, Jr. IF/C/RHP Thomas Martens, Jr. 1B Ethan Dunn, So. UTL/RHP Chandler Holcomb
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The War Eagles missed out on the playoffs by just two games, including losing four games by three runs or less in the subregion. They graduated just two players from last year and returned a majority of their pitching staff and the bulk of their offensive production. Playing in the ultra-tough 8-4A, they will need to find a way to win the close games this year to be able to make a run at the playoffs. The key series’ could be playing 2 of 3 on the road against both East Forsyth and Cherokee Bluff. But they get 2 of 3 at home against North Hall.


COMMERCE
-- COACH/YEARS AT SCHOOL: Steve Cotrell, 16th season (291-232)
-- REGION: 8-A Division 1
-- 2023 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 14-21, Class A D1 2nd round playoffs
-- KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Sr. P Jaxon Foster, Sr. P/OF Coy Argo, Sr. P/OF Hudson Thomason, Sr. P/3B Beau Neisler, Sr. SS JP Allen, Sr. Carson McDuffie UTL, Sr. 1B/C Jaxon Pearce, Sr. C Mason Anderson
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Tigers were coming off a Final 4 run in 2022 but could not quite find the magic last year despite returning several key players. But they are still poised for another playoff run with the bulk of their pitching back and what should be a solid lineup. Cotrell said he put together perhaps the toughest non-region schedule the program has ever had with teams like 7A Milton and 6A teams Kell and Harrison, as well as Franklin County, a playoff team in 3A last season. They finished fourth in a very tough region last season but should be able to challenge for a region title in 2024.


DAWSON COUNTY
-- COACH/YEARS AT SCHOOL: Logan Burt, 2nd season
-- REGION:  7-3A
-- 2023 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 16-16, Class 3A playoffs
-- KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Sr. OF/P Sawyer Bearden, Sr. P Trey Harvey, Sr. P Banks Hickman, Sr. OF Julian Horner, Sr. P/INF Joshua Priest, Jr. INF Davis Glass, Jr. OF Jacson Rickett, Jr. INF/UTL Elijah Odom, Jr. UTL Preston Bannister
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Tigers return the bulk of a young team that lost six games by two runs or less and four by just one run, including to quarterfinalist Franklin County in the playoffs. Bearden, Harvey, and Hickman could be one of the better rotations in the region. Offensively, they averaged just under 7 runs/game and could be even better this season. Defense will be the key and if they can improve in the field, they should be able to challenge for a playoff spot and maybe a region title.


EAST FORSYTH
-- COACH/YEARS AT SCHOOL: Kyle Counts, 2nd season
-- REGION: 8-4A
-- 2023 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 22-14, Class 4A Elite 8, Back-to-back playoff appearances in first 2 years of existence
-- KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Sr. 3B Owen McGee (1st Team All-Region), Sr. 2B Joseph Gurr. Sr. 1B/DH Lucas Kniola, Sr. RF/RHP Matthew Lyons, Sr. CF/RHP Will Moffit, Sr. C Chace Hall, Sr. RHP Bradlee Hamby, Sr. RHP Parker Roberts, Jr. SS Zach Aschoff, Jr. RHP/1B Wyatt Barden, Jr. LHP/1B/OF Trey Farr (1st Team All-Region), Jr. C Mason Schreiber, Jr. RHP Jackson Weir
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Broncos have built a solid program quickly, and their 3rd season could be their best so far. They return all but two players from last year’s quarterfinal team and should be among the favorites to make it back to the playoffs, if not challenge for a region title. They play in the ultra-rugged 8-4A, which houses two-time defending state champion North Oconee, Cherokee Bluff, and North Hall, who won a state title in 2021 (3A). Four of their five starting infielders are back, as are five of their top six pitchers. They get North Oconee on March 6 at home, but they will play 2 of 3 against both Cherokee Bluff and North Hall on the road in the subregion format.


EAST HALL
-- COACH/YEARS AT SCHOOL: Andy Mocahbee, 1st season
-- REGION: 8-4A
-- 2023 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 4-21
-- KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Sr. P/3B/1B Drew Campbell, Sr. P/3B/1B Josh Niles, Jr. P/SS Tyler Parker, Jr. P/C Mason Simmons, Jr. INF/OF Levi Kinney, Jr. OF Caden Crocker
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Vikings were young last season and have several key players back. But with a new coach and playing in the toughest region in Class 4A, they may still be working their way up the standings.


FLOWERY BRANCH
-- COACH/YEARS AT SCHOOL: Dusty Black, 1st season (former assistant for 8 years)
-- REGION: 8-5A
-- 2023 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 21-13, Class 5A 2nd round playoffs
-- KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: So. OF David Ojeda (2nd team Preseason All-State), Jr. OF Jaysean Dyer, Jr. INF Luke Stone, Jr. RHP/OF Kyle Adamec, Jr. LHP/OF David Miller, Sr. LHP Chase Hammock, Sr. RHP/OF/1B Tristan Browning, Jr. C/RHP Jackson Freeman
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: Region 8-5A is by far the toughest region in Class 5A, with defending state champion Loganville and perennial playoff teams Winder-Barrow and Jefferson. However, they posted an 8-4 record in the region last season with a second straight 21-win season. The defense was the issue last season in several key region games, where they finished one back of the second place. Black has been with the program for nearly a decade and knows the personnel. If they can clean up the defense, they have the talent on the mound, at the plate, and in the field to challenge for a playoff berth and maybe a region title.


 GAINESVILLE
-- COACH/YEARS AT SCHOOL: Cris Carpenter, 1st season
-- REGION: 8-6A
-- 2023 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 13-15
-- KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Sr. C/OF Baxter Wright, Sr. INF/P Cooper Reid, So. C/CF/RHP Branson Crawford, So. RF/LHP Smith McGarvey, So. 1B/RHP Cohen Miller, So. 3B/RHP Dawson Vaughn
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Red Elephants are still trying to rebuild the program, which has now gone six years without a playoff berth. They brought in former Gainesville standouts Cris Carpenter and Micah Owings to take over the program but it may take a year or two to get things back on course, especially playing in a very tough Region 8-6A and then staying in the highest classification after the newest round of reclassification hits beginning next season. But with sophomores Crawford, McGarvey, Miller, and Vaughn possibly set in the rotation for the next three years, they could be ready to get back to their old standards.


HABERSHAM CENTRAL
-- COACH/YEARS AT SCHOOL: Chris Akridge, 15th season
-- REGION: 8-6A
-- 2023 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 14-16
-- KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Sr. RHP Kade Nicholson (26 IP, 26K; .333 BA), Sr. OF/RHP Kaleb Chastain, Sr. RHP Konner Burrell (40 IP, 39K), Sr. INF Hayden Gailey (back from injury after missing all of 2023), Sr. INF/P Kaydon Bass (8IP, 16K), So. LHP/OF Maverick Chitwood (.381 BA, All-Region team), Jr. C/INF Spencer Frady (.346 BA, .414 OBP)
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Raiders graduated 10 seniors, including 7 starters, and will be young and inexperienced to start the year. If they can find a consistent rotation and get some quality innings between Nicholson, Burrell, Bass, and Chitwood, they have some quality batters that could keep them in games. But winning close games may be the key to any playoff run they have in 2024.


JEFFERSON
-- COACH/YEARS AT SCHOOL: Kyle Hardy, 2nd season
-- REGION: 8-5A
-- 2023 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 19-10, Class 5A playoffs
-- KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Jr. P Eston Simpson (Clemson commit), Sr. SS/P Jase Peoples (2023 1st team All-State, Snead State-signee), Sr. OF Owen Primm (Augusta University Signee)
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: Region 8-5A is by far the toughest region in Class 5A, with defending state champion Loganville and perennial playoff teams Winder-Barrow and Flowery Branch. The Dragons graduated three key players, including shortstop Bowman Horn, but they return two key pitchers Simpson and Peoples. Pitching should be a strength of the Dragons, but they will have enough offense, especially with a healthy Owen, who was injury-riddled in 2023, to be more than competitive to battle for a playoff spot.


LUMPKIN COUNTY
-- COACH/YEARS AT SCHOOL: Ryan Zaideman, 2nd season
-- REGION: 7-3A
-- 2023 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 20-11, tied the program record for most wins in a season, Class 3A playoffs, 1st playoff appearance since 2015.
-- KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Sr. SS Alejandro Narvaez (Preseason 2nd team All-State), Sr. CF Harper Davenport (Preseason 2nd team All-State), Sr. 3B Hayden Gilbert, Sr. RF Peyton Wood, Sr. 1B Dakota Bennett
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Indians were the surprise team in 7-3A in 2023 and graduated just two players. With Narvaez and Davenport leading the offense, they should be in the playoff race once again.


NORTH FORSYTH
--COACH/YEARS AT SCHOOL: Jim Cahill, 22nd season
-- REGION: 8-6A
-- 2023 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 22-14, Region 8-6A Champions, Class 6A 2nd round playoffs
-- KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Sr. SS Jake Prince (Flagler College signee), Sr. INF/P Kyle Duckwall (Augusta signee), Sr. INF/P Austin McCabe, Sr. INF Luke Mercado, Jr. P Gavyn Seitz, Sr. INF/P Thomas Aucoin,Jr. OF/P Jett Cothran, Jr. OF Jordan Cox, Jr. OF/P Brady Holbrook (Belmont commit), Jr. C/1B Ozzie Patterson, Jr. P Brayden Seabold, Jr. OF/P/1B Brayden Weems, Jr. 1B/OF Ty Womack, So. OF Ellis Alldredge, So. INF Jace Cahill, So. INF/P Seth Dixon, So. C/OF Bryson Germanenko, So. P Sam Moore
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Raiders graduated eight from last year’s region championship team. Several of the current seniors got playing time last season, but they could be in a slight reloading mode as they replace most of their lineup and key defenders, not to mention two D1 pitchers. Flagler and Duckwall will lead them on the mound and will need to give them quality innings in a region that should be ultra-competitive. How quickly the lineup comes around could be the difference in a playoff run or not this season.


NORTH HALL
-- COACH/YEARS AT SCHOOL: Trevor Flow, 7th season, (141-52)
-- REGION: 8-4A
-- 2023 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 19-12, Class 4A playoffs
-- KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Sr. OF Ajay Jones (1st Team All-Region, All State, Pre-Season 1st Team All-State, .375 BA), Sr. INF Jon Jon Read (1st Team All-Region, Pre-Season 2nd Team All-State, .400 BA, 25 RBI, 27 Runs), Sr. INF/P Luke Sanders (19IP, 16 K's, 3.50 ERA), Sr. OF Korbyn Sosebee, Sr. OF/C/P Charlie Wright (.306 BA, 26 Hits, 22 RBI,), Sr. C Nathan Vermeer, Sr. INF Andrew Bales, Jr. IF/OF/P Mills Lothridge (1st Team All-Region, Pre-Season 2nd Team All-State, .360 BA, 29 hits, 2 HR, 21 RBI, 49 IP, 47 Ks, 3.50 ERA), Jr. INF/ P Kian Allen, Jr. OF/P Campbell Payton (19.1 IP, 19 k's, 1.81 ERA), Jr. INF/P Micah Jimerson (20 IP, 20k's), Jr. C/INF Owen Stowers, So. INF/P Kaleb Sexton (1st Team All -Region, All-State, Pre-Season 1st Team All-State, 48.2 IP, 6-1, 2.15 ERA, 47k), So. INF/P Jake Beard, So. C/OF Kenny Foudy, So. OF/P Ty Kemp, Fr. OF/P Cole Cable
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: Youth and leadership issues hampered the Trojans most of last season, resulting in their earliest postseason exit in five years. Finding that leadership and chemistry will be key in the toughest region in Class 4A. They return all but one starter on defense, and with Sexton and Lothridge atop the rotation, they could be ready to challenge for a top spot again. Jones is the catalyst on offense, and if he can stay healthy for a full year, they could have a potent offense.


TOWNS COUNTY
-- COACH/YEARS AT SCHOOL: Shannon Floyd, 11th season
-- REGION: 8-A Division 2
-- 2023 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 24-11, Region 8-A D2 runner-up, Class A D2 quarterfinals
-- KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Sr. C/1B Connor Chastain, Sr. P/SS/UTL Zane Floyd, Sr. P/1B Kade McConnell, Sr. 3B/C/P Stone Chauncey, Sr. OF Tanner Cunningham, Sr. OF Cale Kirby, Sr. P/2B Matthew Chastain, So. P Braydon Barrett, So. Morgan Walker, So. Braydon Baldwin, So. Tripp Shirley, So. Eli McNabb, Fr. Oliver Sarafin
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Indians return seven off last year’s playoff team, including their leading hitter in Connor Chastain and their best overall pitcher McConnell. Who led the team in ERA in 2023. Floyd expects his group to be able to make another deep playoff run in 2024 and compete for a region title as well. They have a solid mix of varsity veterans and younger players ready to step up into some key roles.


WEST HALL
-- COACH/YEARS AT SCHOOL: Brannon Humphries, 5th season
-- REGION: 7-3A
-- 2023 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 9-19
-- KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Sr. C/SS Justin Shaffer (2nd team All State 2023), So. C/SS/P Brett Sturm (2nd team All State), Sr. P/1B Cooper Tapp, Jr. OF/P Marcus Pugh, Jr. 1B/P John Kendrick, So. INF Oziel Lopez, Jr. 3B/C/UTL Drew Svetz
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Spartans return several key players but will need to improve on an offense that scored the second-fewest runs and gave up the second-most runs in the region last year.


WHITE COUNTY
-- COACH/YEARS AT SCHOOL: James Waits, 7th season
-- REGION: 7-3A
-- 2023 RECORD/ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 12-16
-- KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Jr. RHP Shelton Ramey (2-5, 2 saves, 3.49 ERA), So. 3B/RHP Alex Freeman (1-2, 1 save, 1.94 ERA/.349 BA, 1 HR, 1st Team All-Region) Sr. OF Ryan Fowler (.294 BA, 9 SB), Jr. LHP/OF Trevor Butler (2-3, 5.37 ERA/.400 BA, 3 SB), Jr. LHP Grant Gooch, Jr. SS/RHP John Bannon (.273 BA), Sr. RHP Bentley Stover, Sr. LHP/OF Carson Bruce (.290 BA), So. OF/RHP Cooper Garrett, Jr. INF/OF Brayden Roach, Jr. INF/RHP Caleb Campbell, Jr. C Cole Shelton, Jr. INF Hunter Brown, Jr. C/OF Brady Gaddis, Sr. INF Cohen Whitlock
-- SEASON OUTLOOK: The Warriors graduated three of their top five pitchers from a season ago and will need to find some quality innings in a very difficult region. However, they return the majority of their roster that got plenty of playing time and should have a solid lineup. They finished 5th in the region last season, three games back of fourth place after dropping four region contests by 1 run and six by two runs or less. If they can find a way to win the close games, they should be right in the middle of the playoff race.

(Information provided by the coaches. Story was compiled and written by the AccessWDUN Sports staff. If your team was not featured, please reach out to your head coach.)

North Hall sophomore 1B/P Kaleb Sexton, a Class 4A 1st-team preseason All-State selection, should help the Trojans rebound after their earliest playoff exit in five years last season. (Photo/Seth Chapman, FILE)
Senior infielder/pitcher Jacob Vokal (7) will be one of several returning starters for Cherokee Bluff as the Bears look to improve on a runner-up finish in Region 8-4A in 2024. (Photo/Seth Chapman, FILE)

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