As a coaching veteran with six state baseball titles to his name, Stuart Chester knows how big a factor experience on the championship stage is when it comes time to win them.
He believes a lack thereof may have proved costly for his Buford High squad Monday night.
Defending Class 5A champion Loganville swept the Wolves with wins of 13-3 and 3-2 in the state title series at the University of Georgia’s Foley Field. Inexperience particularly bit second-seeded Buford (28-13) in their run-rule loss in the series opener, though they rebounded well after falling behind early in Game 2.
“We put some pressure on ourselves (in the first game),” Chester said. “We came out with maybe a little bit too much emotion, and it got to us a little bit, just being on this stage. It usually pays to have experience in these situations.”
The top-seeded Red Devils (35-6), meanwhile, earned their second straight state championship and the fourth in program history, all of which have come since 2008.
Loganville had also swept the Wolves in their pair of Region 8-5A games last month.
In Game 1, four Buford pitchers combined to allow 11 hits and as many free passes, four of which came with the bases loaded. Three errors only opened the door further for an opportunistic Loganville team that scored multiple runs in all but one inning and had seven different players record an RBI in the opener.
Yet the Wolves started well, grabbing a 2-0 lead in the top of the first when junior designated hitter Reece McIntyre and senior right fielder Garrison Price hit back-to-back run-scoring singles with two outs.
The Red Devils, however, bounced right back in the bottom half with two runs of their own. Senior first baseman Bay Witcher (2 for 3) and freshman designated hitter Daniel Braswell (3 for 3) hit RBI singles to knot the game before sophomore shortstop Dylan Strickland smacked another in the second inning to give Loganville a 3-2 lead.
Buford had a chance to stop the bleeding there with a double play, but a pair of throwing errors allowed Strickland to advance all the way home and teammate Joseph Brandon to reach third.
Brandon later scored on a sacrifice fly by senior center fielder Tanner Green as the Red Devils took a 5-2 lead. Loganville then prompted a pitching change while adding three more runs in the third inning with four hits and a pair of walks.
Chester said starting pitcher Ramsey David, who gave up six hits and walked five, developed a blister on his thumb early in the game.
“That messed with his location, but that’s baseball,” the first-year Buford coach said. “I honestly don’t know how he went as long as he did. But when we took him out, I thought that deflated us a little bit.”
Buford still managed to cut its deficit to 8-3 in the top of the fourth inning when junior catcher Patrick Walker (2 for 2) tripled and senior shortstop Grant James scored pinch-runner KJ Johnson with an RBI groundout.
The Wolves loaded the bases with only one out in the fifth but came away empty-handed.
The Red Devils made Buford pay in the bottom half, sending nine batters to the plate to score five runs and enact the mercy rule. All but one batter reached safely — Brandon, the outlier, hit a sacrifice fly — in an inning that featured five free passes and three singles.
Despite walking six Wolves batters over his five innings on the mound, Brandon notched nine strikeouts and at one point fanned five in a row.
Game 2 looked like it would be more of the same for Buford, which fell behind 3-0 early on a two-run homer by Loganville senior first baseman Bryant Pietri and an RBI single by sophomore catcher Ian King.
But the Wolves struck for two runs in the bottom of the second inning, starting when Garrison Price’s single drove in senior first baseman Noah Ledford. Walker grounded into a fielder’s choice later in the frame, but a pair of Red Devils throwing errors while trying to turn a double play allowed McIntyre to race home.
The threat ended, though, when K.J. Johnson was tagged out at home attempting to pull off a double-steal.
Both teams left the bases loaded in the fourth inning before Wolves junior center fielder Austin Turner made the play of the night, leaping to rob Witcher of a leadoff home run in the top of the fifth. Walker wrapped up the outstanding defensive inning by gunning down a runner at second base.
After 2⅓ innings of two-hit ball from senior reliever Griffin Bonner, Buford turned to junior CJ Couch in the top of the seventh. He stranded Loganville runners on every base to keep the Wolves’ deficit at just one run.
James drew a two-out walk in the bottom of the seventh to chase Red Devils starting pitcher Seth Clark, who had retired nine straight prior to that at-bat and yielded just three hits over 6⅔ innings.
But Witcher came on to record the final out and send the red-clad half of the stadium into a frenzy over its second straight title.
Despite losing a handful of seniors, Chester is hopeful for the future of his program. Both of its starting pitchers will return alongside several contributors from this year’s squad, and he was encouraged by what he saw from his JV and ninth-grade teams this year.
With Monday’s state championship experience under their belts, Chester foresees a bright future for his players — one that might feature them on the celebrating side of such a series.
“I told them that this is a learning experience,” Chester said. “The 2019 season starts tomorrow, so we have to brush ourselves off and get back to work. … Hopefully there’s a silver lining in this, and we can reap the rewards in a year or two.”