Along the outfield wall of Forsyth Central’s baseball field rests a single banner denoting the Bulldogs’ trip to the Elite 8 of the 2012 AAAA state tournament. This year’s players, particularly the seniors, are determined to further decorate that wall—to provide the community a vestige to remember them by.
And given the team’s strong start, there’s good reason to believe that can be accomplished.
With a 3-1 record in Region 7-AAAAA thus far and a young roster that is constantly improving, a trip to the playoffs is certainly in the cards for the Bulldogs.
To get there, however, a lot of in-season adjustments will be required.
"We need to continue to put the ball in play more and walk fewer batters, but we’re doing well in the region," said head coach Kevin McCollum. "We have a couple big games coming up in the next week and a half, so it’ll be interesting to see how things shake out."
Having missed the playoffs by just one game last year—finishing 12-8 in the region—McCollum said his maturing roster is ready for that next step. Central won its final six games in 2013 only to fall just short of the postseason, which, while demoralizing at the time, figures to benefit the Bulldogs in the long run.
"Last year, we made some young mistakes early on, and I think we learned from that," McCollum said. "It’s a 20 game region schedule, and every game matters.
Central still has a few kinks to work out as the schedule progresses, namely cutting down on mental errors, throwing more strikes and showing more discipline at the plate.
Those issues have started to deteriorate, albeit slowly.
"I think we’re a group that should continue to get better," McCollum added. "I don’t think we’re a veteran group that’s hit its peak."
One area that has seen noticeable improvement from 2013 is in the pitching. Heading into Friday’s contest against Pope, Central’s staff ERA rested at 3.69 with just 51 hits allowed in 64.1 innings.
Nik Verbeke is one pitcher who’s off to a hot start. The senior has yet to allow an earned run in 13.2 innings, and has surrendered just eight hits to go along with 15 strikeouts.
Junior Logan Howard has fared well on the mound, as well, striking out 11 batters in 7.1 innings.
"We’re doing really well as a team," said Verbeke. "We’re connecting, we’re bonding. I think we’re going to do big things this year.
"I think I’m doing well and want to continue the success I’ve had."
The hitting is coming along, though it remains a work in progress. Central’s .240 batting average isn’t ideal, nor is its 65-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but there are some bright spots in the lineup—the brightest being senior Dee Kelly.
Kelley has been demolishing opposing pitchers, hitting .517 through 10 games with a home run and nine RBIs. His 3-for-3 effort against North Springs propelled Central to an impressive 6-3 victory last Monday, giving him seven hits in the Bulldogs’ last three wins.
"I feel like I’m doing pretty well," Kelley said. "I started off a little rocky, but things are picking up for me."
Michael Branigan is also swinging the bat well, hitting .387 with a .486 on-base percentage. Batting second, his ability to get on base has benefited the heart of Central’s lineup.
"Our hitting is getting there," Branigan said. "I feel good about the way I’m playing … we just have to keep working hard."
As of Friday, Central is a half-game behind Sequoyah and Pope, who are both 4-1, for the 7-AAAAA lead. To clinch a playoff berth, the Bulldogs must finish fourth or higher in the region, which will be no easy task.
Sprayberry and Creekview are both 3-1, as well, and Riverwood and Kell should put up fights of their own.
"I think the playoffs are the expectations every year," McCollum said. "That’s how we look at it. We want to make it there and compete for a region championship."
"We want to do something to make us worth remembering," said Branigan. "I want to hang a banner out there in centerfield."