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Area baseball teams have aces up their sleeves heading into postseason
Buford, Gainesville top pitching-rich group of squads
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Buford’s Connor Bennett delivers a pitch against Gainesville on Saturday at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville. - photo by Jared Putnam | The Times

Friday's first-round doubleheaders

Class AAAAA

Gainesville vs. Cambridge, 4 p.m.

Class AAAA

Buford vs. Heritage-Catoosa, 5 p.m.
North Hall vs. Pickens, 1 p.m.

Class AAA

West Hall at Oconee County, 5 p.m.
Jackson County at East Hall, 5 p.m.
Lumpkin County at Jefferson, 5 p.m.

All tickets for Friday’s doubleheaders are $7, per GHSA rules.

Connor Bennett had so many dazzling performances on the mound for top-ranked Buford this season, it’s hard to single out just one.

Wolves coach Tony Wolfe can rattle them off like each happened yesterday. There’s a 15-strikeout no-hitter against White County, 14-strikeout performance against North Hall, and then the five no-hit innings he threw against Sparkman High (Harvest, Ala.) earlier this season in tournament play in LaGrange. Bennett finished the regular season with a 5-0 record and 0.00 ERA over 38 1/3 innings pitched.

“Connor’s been phenomenal all season,” Wolfe said. “He’s had some really dominant performances.

“Not only can he be great as a start, but also great as a relief pitcher.”

Pitching is abundant not just for Buford, but also many other area programs in the playoff field. Gainesville has a left-handed ace, Jonathan Gettys, and a strong supporting cast of pitchers all capable of winning. North Hall also has a talented lefty, Corbin Lewallen (8-2, 1.30 ERA), who has been a staple in its rotation for two full seasons.

Jefferson (20-4) enters the Class AAA state tournament with Georgia Tech-bound senior right-hander Micah Carpenter, Taylor Wilkes and Jake Franklin, who will play at Kennesaw State next season, at the top of the pitching rotation.

With a best-of-three format, it’s essential to have two pitchers capable of facing the postseason pressure of the starting role. Having a third pitcher who can be counted on to start is even better.

“Pitching is at a premium,” said North Hall coach Trent Mongero, who guided his program to a region runner-up finish behind Buford in 8-AAAA. “The more depth you have pitching, the better.”

With the right-handed Bennett’s track record for success this year, Wolfe is confident he can continue his dominance on the mound in the postseason for the Wolves. Buford (24-2) opens the Class AAAA state tournament against Heritage-Catoosa with a doubleheader at 5 p.m. today in the best-of-three series at Gerald McQuaig Field.

The West Virginia bound senior and fast-rising prospect on the pro radar had another performance that drew the respect of his coach, who has seen plenty of great arms pass through his program through the years, which last claimed the state title as a Class AA program in 2011.

Even with all the great starts, one of Bennett’s best might have been in a relief stint.

Facing Region 8-AAAAA champion Gainesville (20-5) on March 21, Bennett entered the game in sixth-inning relief with a pair of runners on and clinging to a 2-0 lead at Coolray Field, home of the Triple-A Gwinnett Braves.

Bennett, who has regularly been clocked in the mid 90’s by MLB scouts this season, got out of the jam by retiring four of the six batters he faced by way of a strikeout versus a tough-hitting Red Elephants’ lineup, to preserve the 2-0 victory.

“Connor’s a guy who has such a live arm,” said Wolfe, whose team has made four state semifinal appearances since 2005. “He’s the kind of pitcher who goes right after guys.”

Bennett allowed just a single unearned run (vs. West Forsyth, March 28) during the regular season. And Bennett won’t even get the ball until Game 2.

Pitching Game 1 for Buford is lefty Jake Higginbotham, the subject of extensive pro interest and a possible high-round draft pick. Higginbotham (7-1, 0.32 ERA) also climbs up into the mid 90’s with his fastball. His lone loss came against nationally-ranked DeSoto Central (Southaven, Miss.), allowing four unearned runs in six innings. Over his four years,

Higginbotham has amassed a 25-3 record and 0.72 ERA, according to Wolfe.

Wolfe is also comfortable with Keyton Gibson, Kevin Coulter and Justin Glover getting the ball.

“In a perfect world, we’d get all five guys some innings,” said Wolfe.

The formula for Gainesville on the mound is simple: get a great effort from Gettys (7-2, 0.50 ERA) in Game 1, then turn to either Caleb Whitenton, Harrison Styles or Mikey Gonzalez to try and complete a sweep against Cambridge. Gainesville coach Jeremy Kemp said his hard-throwing junior lefty will certainly take the mound to start the series, but couldn’t commit to who will throw Game 2.

One of the best signs for the Red Elephants, according to their coach, is playoff experience for many of his pitchers.

Whitenton earned three victories in the postseason as a junior, and Gettys picked up a pair of playoff wins as a freshman in 2013 while part of a rotation that included his older brother, Michael. Jonathan is an early verbal commit to top-ranked Louisiana State.

“We want kids who have been there before, and our guys have good experience,” said Kemp.

One of Gettys’ strongest outings this season came with a one-hit performance against Flowery Branch in 8-AAAAA play.

Whitenton earned a gritty win against Loganville, 7-2, despite a steady rain earlier this month at Ivey-Watson Field. Kemp said Cambridge is capable of making it a three-game series.

“We have our hands full with Cambridge,” said Kemp. “But once you get to the postseason, everyone is good.”

At East Hall, the Vikings are making their first playoff appearance since 2003, opening with a first-round series against Jackson County. Eli Stuart, Jack Hagwood and Jonah Crocker all have two wins this season for the Vikings.

For Jefferson, there’s been pretty even production between its starting trio. Carpenter (43 strikeouts), Wilkes (26 strikeouts) and Franklin (22 strikeouts) will all likely get work in first-round play against Lumpkin County.

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