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Baseball: West, sitting in last place in the region, keeps hope alive entering home stretch
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The West Forsyth baseball team celebrates after Matthew Cassandra hit a walk-off single to give the Wolverines an 8-7 win over Marist on April 5, 2018 at West Forsyth High School. - photo by Ian Frazer

West Forsyth baseball head coach Mike Pruitt knew that the lack of experience on this year’s team could lead to some challenging situations, so he’s stressed the importance of togetherness.

“We’ve just got to stay together, do everything right, do everything together, (have) everybody on point,” Pruitt said.

That meant that when the Wolverines had to pull a rain-filled tarp off the field on Friday morning the week before spring break, everybody had to be there. Four starters were not, so Pruitt held them out of that evening’s game against Lambert. West lost that game in a 17-4 blowout, putting them at 2-7 and in last place in Region 5-7A.

“There were a lot of people who weren't happy with that decision, but that was my decision; I'll stand by it,” Pruitt said on Thursday. “If they ever want to fire me because I'm trying to teach these kids right from wrong, then I'm in the wrong job, anyway.”

Pruitt was in a happier mood when he said that, because the Wolverines had just won their second game against Marist in two days. West trailed 7-6 heading into the bottom of the seventh after leading 6-2 just an inning prior, but with runners on first and second, Matthew Cassandra hit a single that the War Eagles’ left fielder booted, allowing both runners to score and giving the Wolverines an 8-7 walk-off win.

Another thing Pruitt is impressing upon the Wolverines: They spot they’re in now isn’t so different from the one they were in last season. West was 4-5 heading into the last two weeks of the region schedule in 2017, and West won five of its last six games to grab the No. 2 state playoff seed. Two games is a significant margin at this point of the year, and the chances of the Wolverines hosting again are miniscule, but making the playoffs is still a realistic possibility.

“This team hasn’t shown its talent yet,” senior catcher Indy Stanley said.

Its inexperience, however, has been plainly apparent. The Wolverines haven’t scored many runs this year, and they didn’t score many last year, either. But the previous year’s team had a rotation of Hank Flood, Bryar Hawkins and Jay Thompson, three extra-reliable seniors. The team fell into a pattern: get five or six from one of those arms, and then give the ball to lefty reliever Ryan Ferguson to finish things.

Having to replace that rotation wholesale hasn’t gone smoothly. The Wolverines have a number of upperclassmen who can pitch, but their inexperience at starting games, in large part due to players like Flood and Thompson taking up those innings in the past, has been apparent.

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West Forsyth's Bryce Hawkins delivers a pitch during the Wolverines' game against Marist on April 5, 2018 at West Forsyth High School. - photo by Ian Frazer
There’s talent, though, particularly among the team’s sophomore arms. Bryce Hawkins, the younger brother of Bryar, started Thursday’s game, and like his brother, he came at the War Eagles with a tricky sidearm delivery and a set of pitches that move so much that the Wolverines’ coaches don’t even bother calling location. Hawkins’ control can still be erratic – he hit four Marist batters squarely on the behind in Thursday’s start, to the War Eagles’ amusement – but opposing hitters rarely make pure contact. He allowed five hits in 5 2/3 innings in Thursday’s start, and held Lambert to two hits in seven innings the previous week.

“I love catching Bryce Hawkins,” Stanley said. “(He’s) definitely harder to catch than anyone else on the team, other than Wyatt Crowell.”

Crowell, a sophomore lefty who has already received an offer to play at Georgia Tech, threw six shutout innings with seven strikeouts on Wednesday to lead the Wolverines to a 1-0 win. Pruitt said that Crowell and Hawkins, alongside senior righthander Zach Burns, are going to form the Wolverines’ rotation in the coming weeks.

“We’re going to roll with those guys that seem to have the hot hand now, just to see how far we can go in this thing,” Pruitt said.

West doesn’t have an easy stretch to end the region schedule. The Wolverines have two games against South Forsyth, who is 8-0 in the region, and two against Forsyth Central, in which they could see top MLB Draft prospect Ethan Hankins and Georgia commit Mitchell Gross on the mound.

But Pruitt isn’t packing it in, and his team has recent history with surprising him. When Pruitt saw the absences that Friday morning, he told the players to just go to class instead. Roughly 20 minutes later, he got a text from a senior: The tarp had been pulled.

“How they got it off, I don’t know,” Pruitt said.