Yes, Spring Break is almost over, which is great; it just means big-time baseball games are almost back.
But before those, the FCN sports staff takes stock of the best pitchers, players, coaches and more of the season so far.
PITCHER OF THE YEAR
IAN FRAZER, Sports writer: It isn’t like there wasn’t any hype around Forsyth Central’s Ethan Hankins heading into this season, but there were a few factors moderating it. A summer appearance in the East Coast Pro showcase only has meaning to someone with fairly deep knowledge of the amateur scouting world. Same goes for a top-5 spot in Perfect Game’s list of junior pitchers, and a commitment to Vanderbilt only turns heads among college baseball fans. But anyone who has seen Hankins this spring now knows how rare of a talent he is. He’s tall, limber and has a fastball with palpable sizzle, making it almost unhittable when it’s up in the zone. He has 56 strikeouts in 30 2/3 innings and has just five walks. His ERA is 0.
BRIAN PAGLIA, Sports Editor: The correct answer is Forsyth Central junior Ethan Hankins, who is drawing the same kind of awe and praise from local observers that former Lambert slugger Seth Beer once did. But South Forsyth sophomore Landon Sims isn’t that far behind him. The Mississippi State commit is top 5 in the county in wins (first, 5) and strikeouts (fifth, 38) and sports a nice 1.93 ERA. After an understandably shaky transition to varsity competition as a freshmen last season, Sims is a bonafide ace who could push Hankins for this award.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
FRAZER: Pinecrest Academy’s place in Class 1A is a factor I considered in this selection, but the fact remains that no other player in the county has been on Ryan McCarthy’s level in terms of offensive production. The senior, signed to play quarterback for The Citadel, has an astounding .452/.575/.903 slash line and 17 walks to 15 strikeouts. The Paladins have struggled as a team, with a 9-11 record overall and 3-9 mark in Region 6-A play, but McCarthy looks like a strong candidate to make an all-state team for the second straight year.
PAGLIA: Coaches expected offense to be down this season, and overall they’re right, but there are still some impressive offense seasons happening, led by South Forsyth first baseman and designated hitter Grant Pearce. He leads the county in home runs (8) and RBIs (23) and is hitting well enough (.407) that he could end up with a triple crown. And the War Eagles need him to keep it up to remain in playoff contention.
COACH OF THE YEAR
FRAZER: One should be hesitant to count Lambert out in any sport, given the school’s stellar track record in just eight years of existence, but doing so for the Longhorns’ baseball team this year would have been forgiven. Lambert had to replace the vast majority of its contributors from 2016’s squad, and then the Longhorns limped through non-region play this year with a 5-7 record. The turnaround since then – a 7-2 record in Region 5-7A, putting the Longhorns in first place – reflects extremely well on the job that head coach Rick Howard has done. Lambert has made its run without ridiculous star power in its lineup, either – Griffin Jarrett and Josh McAllister are the only players hitting better than .275.
PAGLIA: This is always the toughest category to choose each year, for the county is filled with accomplished coaches, but the job by Lambert’s Rick Howard really stands out this season. That the Longhorns sit in first place in Region 5-7A after losing their entire starting pitching staff, entire outfield, a Division I catcher and half their infield is pretty remarkable.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. How far can Forsyth Central run?
If I were to single out an underperformer in the region so far, it would be the Bulldogs. Like many teams, they had some large holes in the lineup to fill, but a very talented rotation, stocked with D-I commits in Hankins and Mitchell Gross and a senior in Ryan Cox who threw a perfect game in non-region play, looked like one of the county’s biggest strengths. Those arms have largely fulfilled expectations, but the bats have sagged, and Central has hit just .247 as a team. The Bulldogs are looking up heading into the last stretch, though, as they took three games from North Forsyth the week before spring break. Their remaining region games are against Milton, South Forsyth, West Forsyth and Lambert, all of whom are ahead of the fifth-place Bulldogs, so the opportunity to spring into the state playoffs is there.
2. Have we seen the best of Landon Sims’ breakout?
Sims, South Forsyth’s sophomore ace, was the other major buzz-generator in the county during the offseason, when he committed to Mississippi State. It may have seemed surprising from a statistical standpoint, as Sims’ ERA was almost 5 in 2016, but the right-hander’s second campaign with the Warhawks has been stellar, with a 1.93 ERA, 38 strikeouts and just 9 walks in 32 2/3 innings. He’s had hiccups, like when he allowed six runs in 2 2/3 innings in a loss to Central, but it could be intriguing to see if Sims can get to a higher plane – one possibly rivaling Hankins – to help lead South through the final games of a cutthroat region schedule.
3. Can West better its stock?
The Wolverines are currently clinging to fourth place in the region, which would guarantee them a spot in the state playoffs, but that doesn’t seem to square with their experience and talent, both in the rotation and the batting order. Bryar Hawkins and Hank Flood have been productive two-way contributors, and West’s deep pitching staff has mostly kept run totals down. Taking a game-by-game look at their results makes the Wolverines’ chances of a late push look even better: Three of their losses have come by two runs or less, and when they fell to North to give the Raiders their only region win of the season so far, the Wolverines left 14 runners on base in seven innings.
1. How will Region 5-7A play out?
As far as competitiveness, this new region that added Forsyth Central and Milton has lived up to the hype. You have five teams (sorry, North Forsyth) in contention for four state playoff spots all within three games of each other. Lambert (7-2) leads Milton (6-3) for first place with South Forsyth (5-4) and Central (4-5) and West (4-5) right behind. And they play nobody but each other the rest of the way, starting Monday with Central at Milton, Lambert at North and West at South. Should be an exciting final two weeks before the playoffs begin April 28.
2. Can Pinecrest Academy make the state playoffs?
Young head coach Ryan Weingart is doing an impressive job with the Paladins this season. They’re 9-11, which means they’ve already exceeded their win total by last season’s senior-laden team, but more importantly they are 24th in the GHSA’s Class 1A Power Ratings – only 24 teams make the state playoffs in 1A. So, can Pinecrest do it? It’d be the first time for the baseball program since the school joined the GHSA. The glass-half-full outlook would point to a young ace in sophomore pitcher Patrick O’Rourke (4-3, 2.94 ERA, 48K) who is having one of the most under-rated seasons in the county and a potent offense led by Ryan McCarthy (.452, 6HR, 17RBI), Will Patota (.386, 3HR, 17RBI) and Ben Gobbel (.380, 2HR, 15RBI).
3. Who is the best playoff contender?
Getting in to the state playoffs is a wonderful achievement. But I’m a sports editor; I’ve got plans to make. So who among the county’s state playoff contenders has the best chance to make a deep run and give us something to cover for two, maybe three, weeks? Deep pitching staffs help, so that bodes well for Central, Lambert and West. Potent offenses help too, so South is in good shape. Often times matchups matter even more, so more will be determined by who has to play who from Region 7 in the first round and what teams they might face in later rounds.