This is the year that the Forsyth Central baseball team finally joins its county peers in the largest class in the state, jumping to Class 7A after previously sitting in 5A.
Bulldogs head coach Kevin McCollum downplays the significance of the transition, and he has reason to do so. It’s not a massive jump in quality – or much of one at all – and with the overall parity in the county, Central should seamlessly enter the mix.
But it certainly helps that they’re doing so with what might be one of the most talented pitchers the county has ever seen.
That’s junior Ethan Hankins, a sinewy 6 feet 6 inches and 200 pounds with especially big hands, which give him plenty of surface area off of which to spin a baseball. This past fall, at the WWBA Underclass World Championship in Florida, he hit 95 mph with his fastball. He also throws a curveball and changeup in the low 80s.
The manner in which he does so is perhaps the most exciting part of the package: A quick, clean, whip-like motion that he easily repeats, staying light on his feet like a point guard. He’s not yet 17 years old and still appears to have room to put on weight in his frame.
"I personally haven't had anybody that's been as gifted naturally as he has,” McCollum said.
Hankins has the requisite qualities to be a very popular name with Major League Baseball clubs in the 2018 draft. This summer, he plans to hit the prestigious Area Code Games and East Coast Pro showcases – and maybe the Perfect Game All-American Classic – which are where draft boards start to take serious shape.
Between that, though, he has a high school season.
“Obviously, when all these people are talking about the future, it's hard not to think about it,” Hankins said. “But I try to focus on the present right now in this season.”
Hankins is close friends with Kumar Rocker, another top draft prospect in the class of 2018. The two bond over the similarity of their situations, but on Feb. 13, they met as opponents, with Hankins’ Bulldogs facing Rocker’s North Oconee Titans. (The Titans won 3-1.)
Their friendship came to be with the help of Vanderbilt, where both players are committed. Hankins committed to the Southeastern Conference program due to its track record of developing flame-throwing arms – he pictures himself like Kyle Wright, a current Commodores first-round pitching prospect – but also because of the close-knit atmosphere he saw in Nashville, one which didn’t just include current members of the program.
In fact, Hankins, an avid Atlanta Braves fan, met Vanderbilt alum and Cobb County native Dansby Swanson, the Braves’ current shortstop, on his first visit.
“I didn’t realize it was him until he showed up and shook my hand,” Hankins said. “And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s Dansby Swanson.’”
The possibility of Hankins ending up at Vanderbilt isn’t necessarily a remote one. The Commodores have a track record of luring high-round draft picks to school, like they did with Tyler Beede, picked 21st overall out of high school in 2011. And if Hankins were to go to college, he would be one of the first members of his family to do it.
All the attention that has and will be directed at Hankins will also inevitably affect his teammates, perhaps more so than his fastball, which has driven Central catcher Grant Cloud to wear an extra pad on his glove hand.
“When you go from catching someone who's mid-70s and he comes in there and starts pumping, you just got to react,” Cloud said. “You can't focus on it. It just kind of happens.”
The scouts who come to watch Hankins won’t be focusing solely on him. If another player shows something interesting, they’ll take notice. It happened in 2014, when Central played Sprayberry and scouts came out to watch shortstop Michael Chavis, who was picked 26th overall that year. But in the process, Bulldogs catcher Michael Branigan caught a scouts’ eye and wound up going in the 22nd round.
But all the pro hype and attention is secondary to the Bulldogs just wanting to win, and they can feel better about that with a talent like Hankins on their side.
“I think it's just good to know that we have someone that everyone thinks is that good,” Cloud said.