Last season, when the Milton Eagles traversed a grueling schedule and won the Class AAAAAA championship, head coach Joey Ray figured he used just five pitchers and 10 position players.
With good health, Milton stuck to its nucleus of talent to win the program’s first state title since 2004.
“We had about 10 kids who didn’t do anything,” Ray said.
This season, as the Eagles have again navigated a tough schedule to host Lambert (34-1) in the Class AAAAAA championship starting Saturday, they’ve used eight pitchers and 20 position players.
With a rash of injuries, Milton has needed all hands on deck.
“I’m pretty proud of that,” Ray said, “that so many people have had such a significant role.”
Milton (27-7) entered this season expected to make another state championship run with 11 returning starters, including three Division I signees.
The most notable was senior and ace pitcher Dylan Cease, a Vanderbilt signee and first-round talent. He left the fifth inning of Milton’s game against Johns Creek on March 3 with soreness in his elbow. Cease hasn’t pitched since, though he resumed playing as a designated hitter to hit .359 with two home runs and 23 RBIs in 21 games.
Cease’s injury set off a chain of adjustments for Ray and the Eagles. Cease was also Milton’s shortstop on days he didn’t pitch. His replacement during starts was senior second baseman Ryan Gridley. The Mississippi State signee moved to shortstop full-time and provided stellar defense while hitting a team-best .451.
“I can’t say enough of how great of a job he’s done filling in there,” Ray said.
Gridley’s switch to shortstop meant Milton needed a new second baseman. Ray picked a replacement, but he got injured. So Ray called up sophomore Steven Curry from junior varsity. He’s hitting .387.
“He’s no longer just carrying his weight,” Ray said. “He’s every bit as important to the team as everyone else.”
On and on it went for Milton. Centerfielder Dalton Ewing missed five games. Leftfielder Erik Petersen missed 10 games.
“That’s why getting to a state championship is so difficult,” Ray said, “because you have so many things to overcome.”
But Milton did, thanks in part to a deep pitching staff led by Clemson signee Alex Schnell (9-2, 0.96), Matt Geiger (7-0, 1.97) and Will Matthews (6-1, 1.69).
The Eagles have also had a steadying presence from third baseman Dalon Farkas (.240, 26 RBIs), catcher Alec Miller (.391, 12 RBIs), first baseman Jack Thompson (.333, 26 RBIs) and utility player Josh Saavedra (.377, 11 RBIs).
Along the way, Milton rebounded from a 12-7 start to win Region 5-AAAAAA and swept North Gwinnett, Grayson, Kennesaw Mountain and Johns Creek in the playoffs to reach the state championship.
The Eagles are where they hoped to be, but they aren’t the team they thought would get them there.
“We’re just fortunate that the kids who have been called on to step up have done a phenomenal job,” Ray said. “I think that’s really been the story for us. It’s been a team of 25 guys who each did their part.”