Longhorns second-year head coach Rick Howard had a long checklist during the non-region schedule. He had to find three new starting pitchers, an entire new outfield, a new catcher and new right side of the infield.
Howard managed to check off most. College of Charleston signee Zach Keenan, Aidan McAllister and Cameron Smith will fill the three-man starting pitching rotation. Collin Price will catch, with help from Jack Fleming. Griffin Jarrett will take over first base and anchor the lineup.
Howard acknowledges this Lambert team lacks the varsity experiences of groups past.
“Got five weeks of very competitive baseball,” Howard said. “How do the kids handle it?”
They got plenty in 12 non-region games against the likes of Blessed Trinity, Brookwood, Buford, Cartersville, Marist, Mill Creek and Parkview.
The Longhorns went 1-6 against that group of perennial playoff contenders, and that’s OK.
How they fare in Region 5-7A is all that matters.
“Our region is going to be very, very competitive,” Howard said.
Raiders head coach Jim Cahill is so loath to assign value to the teams’ results in the non-region schedule that he calls those games the “preseason.”
“On Monday, we’ll be 0-0,” Cahill said.
That blinders-on mentality is consistent with the reputation of toughness and resiliency that the Raiders have earned among region coaches. That could also be reflected in the way they’ve won this year, only getting three of their seven wins by margins greater than two runs.
After the departure of a group of important seniors last year, including 2016 Forsyth County News Player of the Year Cory Campbell, this year’s Raiders skew young.
Junior Tyler Fairchild, one of the Raiders’ top returning arms from last year, has had multiple strong performances, striking out six over five innings in a 3-1 win over Cherokee and throwing five frames in an 11-0 win over Duluth. Brody Westbrooks, a legitimate college prospect as a sophomore, struck out eight in five innings in a 3-1 win over White County and whiffed eight in 5 1/3 innings in a 5-3 win over Dunwoody.
Those early outings are a good omen for a Raiders team that hopes to get back to the playoffs and again challenge for a series win.
The War Eagles weren’t going to ease into this campaign after a 2016 season in which they failed to reach the state playoffs and finished with the fewest wins among Forsyth County’s public schools.
In fact, head coach Russ Bayer didn’t care a great deal how South’s record looked at the end of the non-region gauntlet with which the team began the season. Failure during a tough schedule would be better than success with a soft one.
“It’ll look good on paper, but they won’t be prepared,” Bayer said.
This season, though, South didn’t have to choose. The War Eagles finished non-region play at 7-4, knocking off multiple ranked teams in the process. They began the season with an 8-4 win over Walton, the defending Class 6A state champions, and the victory functioned as an early breakout for Landon Sims, one of the top talents in Forsyth County.
Sims didn’t have sterling numbers in 2016, putting up a 4.96 ERA in 42 1/3 innings, but he can be largely forgiven due to one important factor.
“I think a lot of people don’t keep in perspective that last year, he was a ninth grader,” Bayer said.
Indeed, being such a prominent figure as a freshman in one of the toughest high school baseball areas in the country is laudable, and Sims’ profile took another jump later that year, when he committed to Mississippi State.
This year, the sophomore has been factored strongly into multiple important wins for the War Eagles. In the aforementioned season-opening victory, he struck out seven in four innings and went 2-for-4 with a home run. He struck out seven more while allowing just one hit in five innings against St. Pius X and threw a complete game in South’s 8-1 win over Roswell.
The sophomore’s fastball was clocked at 89 mph on March 4, the same day that fellow War Eagles junior Cooper Davidson’s hitter 90 mph, according to Perfect Game personnel in attendance at the company’s LakePoint facility.
If arms like that perform to the full potential of their talent, Bayer said, South will be “just fine.” That’s especially true in a high-parity region that some coaches say lacks impact offensive talent.
Wolverines head coach Mike Pruitt wanted to use the non-region schedule to experiment with all facets of his team: starting rotation, lineup configurations, middle relief options and on and on.
Turned out, Pruitt didn’t have a choice. West was hit by the flu, knocking as many as six projected starters out of the lineup at one point.
“It’s been a little tough for us,” Pruitt said.
But it’s been getting easier. West is over the flu. The starting rotation has settled with veterans Florida Southwestern signee Jay Thompson, senior Hank Flood and Clemson signee Bryar Hawkins. Zach Burns, Lucas Ellenberg and Ryan Ferguson make up the middle relief with the potential to make a start if necessary.
Pruitt is still waiting for West’s full potential to manifest at the plate, but it’s improving. The Wolverines were averaging nine strikeouts through their first five games. That dropped to just four a game over the next five. Hawkins has been a force, and the team liked catcher Indiana Stanley’s penchant for hard contact at leadoff.
But Pruitt is most interested to see how this particular mix of players coalesces into a team.
“I do think if all our guys are focused and on point, we’ll have a chance to compete for the region championship,” Pruitt said.