North Hall will always put a contender on the field in baseball.
However, when talking about who’s the best in Hall County for 2023, Cherokee Bluff is going to make a serious push for that label.
To start the season, 3 of 11 programs in Hall County are ranked in the top 10 by the Georgia Dugout Preview, led in Class 4A by the fourth-ranked Bears, followed by the eighth-ranked Trojans.
In Class 5A, Flowery Branch will start the season ranked No. 7.
North Hall (32-7 overall last season, 21-0 in Region 7-3A) has made the state semifinals each of the past three seasons in which there were playoffs (2019, 2021 and 2022), highlighted by its second-ever state championship in 2021.
After graduating 13 seniors from its 2022 program, the Trojans return just two starters, but one is ultra-talented junior centerfielder Ajay Jones. On the mound, the leadership will come from senior right-hander Landon Lee.
While possibly a rebuilding season, North Hall has one of the strongest foundations for its baseball program in the entire state, regardless of classification.
Since winning the state championship for the first time in 2017, the Trojans have three seasons with more than 30 wins and were well on their way to a strong campaign in 2020, when the season was shutdown early due to COVID-19.
The biggest battle, in Hall County, will come in Region 8-4A with the Trojans and Bears clearly the teams to beat in a 10-team, subdivided league. The other side of the region is equally tough with North Oconee and Madison County.
Cherokee Bluff (25-10 in 2022, second round of state) will certainly have the most impressive collection of talent in 2023, led by seniors Bryce England (Georgia Southern signee), Brett House (Mississippi State signee) and Braxton Beal (Georgia Southern signee). Returning this season, the Bears have five preseason All-State selections and seven starters who finished the 2022 campaign hitting above .300.
On the mound, the Bears will be paced by the hard-throwing Beal, whose season ended early in 2022, due to injury.
Also in Class 4A, Chestatee could be a factor, having last made the postseason in 2021.
At East Hall, it will have ample talent back this season with six seniors and seven returning starters. Leading the way for the Vikings are senior Carter Gillespie (outfield/LHP); senior Walker Barrett (outfield/LHP); senior Haden Brock (infield); senior Christian McCullough (RHP/catcher); sophomore Levi Kinney (infield/outfield); sophomore Tyler Parker (shortstop/RHP) and sophomore Caden Crocker (outfield).
This season, Johnson will play a non-region schedule.
Leading the Knights are sophomores Nathan Nguyen (.326 batting average and .400 on-base percentage in 2022) and Braydon Black (.864 fielding percentage).
And in Region 8-5A, Flowery Branch (21-12 in 2012) also appears to be a very strong contender with a handful of talented starters back from its run to the second round of the playoffs last year under the leadership of nationally-respected coach Joey Ray.
In 2023, the Falcons, who will have a very deep senior class, will be led at the plate by Kade Smallwood, Mason Compton and Aaron Attaway.
Attaway and Compton are also the top two returning pitchers for the Falcons, which play in a very deep region with powerhouse programs such as Loganville, Winder-Barrow and Jefferson.
In Class 3A, West Hall has four returning starters: Evan Connor, Justin Shaffer, Cody Davis and Cooper Tapp. Even though the Spartans are young, their coach Brannon Humphries is optimistic about others coming up in the program, including freshman Brett Sturm, senior Camden Page, sophomore Jaden Young and sophomore Drew Svetz. In addition, sophomores Marcus Pugh and John Kendrick are back healthy for West Hall, after missing most of last season with injuries.
In the Georgia Independent Athletics Association, first-year Riverside Prep coach Derrick Lucas has seven returning starters, led by senior pitcher Delcan Bethel and senior catcher Dominic Morgan.
In the same league, Lakeview Academy has a handful of returning players as it makes the transition from the GHSA. For the Lions, James Cobb (outfield/pitcher), Ethan Croft (outfield/pitcher), Jarrett Atwill (catcher/pitcher), Brock Graham (shortstop/pitcher) and Liam Plaisted (third base/pitcher) all return in 2023.
In the Georgia Association of Private and Parochial Schools, Lanier Christian has 10 returning starters from its program that made the state quarterfinals in 2022.
For the Lightning, senior Isaac Dinn (.313 average and 19 runs in 2022), Camden Hohman (.383 average, 23 runs scored), Carter Raulerson (.379, 19 runs), Barry Waymack (.392 and 17 runs) and sophomore pitcher Gavin Strabala (.389 batting average; 2.19 ERA on the mound) are expected to lead the way.
Here’s a look at the top 10 players this season in Hall County (in alphabetical order):
AARON ATTAWAY, RIGHT-HANDED PITCHER/CATCHER, FLOWERY BRANCH (Sr.): One of the strong arms in the Falcons’ rotation who can get his fastball up to the mid 80s, based on his Perfect Game profile. In 2022, he threw 48 1/3 innings and surrendered 48 hits and 22 earned runs with a 3.19 ERA.
BRAXTON BEAL, RIGHT-HANDED PITCHER/OUTFIELD, CHEROKEE BLUFF (Sr.): Hard-throwing No. 1 starter for the Bears who can get up to 92 mph with his fastball, according to his Perfect Game profile. He has great size at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, and he was 3-1 in 2022 when his season ended, due to an injury. Preseason All-State in 2023.
MASON COMPTON, RIGHT-HANDED PITCHER/THIRD BASE, FLOWERY BRANCH (Sr.): Hard-throwing Wofford College signee who allowed 17 earned runs and 33 hits over 49 innings with a 2.43 ERA for the Falcons in 2022. Threw a perfect game in the first round of the postseason as a sophomore against Fayette County. Preseason First-Team All-State by Georgia Dugout Preview.
TY CORBIN, CATCHER/UTILITY, CHEROKEE BLUFF (Jr.): Had a team-best .435 batting average and .526 on-base percentage with 42 runs scored and 24 stolen bases in 2022. Earned All-State honors last season and is Preseason All-State for 2023.
BRYCE ENGLAND, CATCHER/OUTFIELD, CHEROKEE BLUFF (Sr.): Great hitter who has a lot of pop in his bat, he hit .371 last season with seven HRs, 37 RBIs and 41 runs scored for the Bears. England was All-Region and All-State in 2022, and is Preseason All-State in 2023.
BRETT HOUSE, OUTFIELD, CHEROKEE BLUFF (Sr.): Physically-impressive at 6-4 and 215 pounds, he’s got a great arm from the outfield and a lot of power at the plate. In 2022, he hit five homers with 33 RBIS and had a .457 on-base percentage.
AJAY JONES, OUTFIELD, NORTH HALL (Jr.): Solid hitter with great range in the outfield and elite speed. Hit .390 in 2022 and was successful on 29 of 39 stolen-base attempts.
CALEB MIELE, CATCHER/OUTFIELD, CHEROKEE BLUFF (Jr.): Right-hander who batted .398 with a team-best 43 RBIs last season for the Bears. Earned All-State honors in 2022 and is Preseason All-State in 2023.
KADE SMALLWOOD, FIRST BASE, FLOWERY BRANCH (Sr.): Left-handed hitter who batted .400 in 2022 for the Falcons, he’s been a staple in its lineup for a few seasons. Smallwood is signed with Division II Young Harris College. Preseason First-Team All-State by Georgia Dugout Preview.
JACOB VOKAL, RIGHT-HANDED PITCHER/INFIELD, CHEROKEE BLUFF (Jr.): Davidson College commit had great production in 2022, batting .405 with 40 RBIS and scored 47 runs. He also had two homers and stole a team-high 31 bases.
TOP YOUNG TALENT
KENNY FOUDY, CATCHER/OUTFIELD, NORTH HALL (Fr.): Impressive young hitter with a lot of pop who will likely be counted on early for the Trojans in 2023.
LANDON KEMP, INFIELD, CHEROKEE BLUFF (So.): Speedy middle infielder who hit .324 with a .450 on-base percentage in 2022. He also registered 15 stolen bases and 32 runs as a freshman.
SMITH MCGARVEY, LEFT-HANDED PITCHER/OUTFIELD, GAINESVILLE (Fr.): Promising pitcher for the Red Elephants who will likely get a chance to show what he can do right away.
KALEB SEXTON, LEFT-HANDED PITCHER/INFIELD, NORTH HALL (Fr.): Talented young pitcher who his coach is planning to have in the starting rotation to start the season.
KADEN THOMPSON, RIGHT-HANDED PITCHER/UTILITY, CHEROKEE BLUFF (So.): Now 6-2 and 190, he burst on the scene as a freshman, hitting ,398 with 24 RBIs, 31 runs and 18 stolen bases. Also reached base more than 50% of the time.