The Gainesville High baseball program has plenty of history.
There have been state champions, college standouts and even a current major leaguer. But never before had the Red Elephants done what they accomplished in 2012.
A perfect regular season and six straight wins to open the Class AAA state playoffs before dropping the semifinals series opener to Ringgold, a series which they would eventually lose in three games.
“We expected to be state contenders,” coach Jeremy Kemp said. “We definitely expected that. But 31-0? You never expect that. Even the best teams have a bad day. It was a lot of fun. We were three wins from accomplishing our goal, and it hurt to fall. But it was a lot of fun to be a part of.”
The 31 consecutive wins gave the team a No. 2 national ranking on ESPN’s Powerade Fab 50. At that point, it was the only undefeated team among those ranked.
For his work in leading Gainesville to such impressive heights, Kemp is The Times 2012 Baseball Coach of the Year.
The Red Elephants entered the season as one of the more talented teams in recent memory.
Their ace pitcher, David Gonzalez, had already signed to play at the University of Georgia. Catcher Skyler Weber and sophomore pitcher Michael Gettys would follow suit and verbally commit to the Bulldogs.
Others, like seniors Ryan Griffith and Stephen Mason also had college ball in their futures, and they played like it from the first pitch of the season.
In its second and third games of the season, Gainesville shut out West Laurens twice, 11-0 and 15-0.
Gonzalez said it was Kemp and the coaching staff that was able to take the immense talent and turn it into an elite baseball team.
“On the team, we had six or seven guys going to the next level,” he said. “But (Kemp) is the guy that takes it all in and puts it all together. The things he teaches us in practice helps us shine even more. He’s a great coach and really knows what he’s talking about.”
Kemp reciprocated the credit.
“They had great work ethic,” he said of his team. “The work ethic of the older guys, the way they worked even back in the offseason, in conditioning. It really started a long time ago, long before the first bat was picked up for the first official practice.”
The role of the coach in building that work ethic can often be overlooked. Kemp himself said that he didn’t know where their skill and work ethic ended and his leadership began. According to him, sometimes it’s just about setting a good example.
“I don’t know sometimes, man,” Kemp said, laughing, in regards to his role in the team’s success. “I guess the main thing I tell the guys is that we may not always be the smartest team out there, but I want to be the hardest working. I don’t want anyone to outwork us.”
The players recognized that in their coach.
“He’s definitely about his business,” Gonzalez said. “When we step on the field, we know it’s time to go to work.”
Gonzalez, though, was quick to note Kemp’s best attribute as a coach didn’t take place between the lines.
He’s a player’s coach, Gonzalez said. One who is willing to get to know his guys beyond their place on a lineup card and help them improve on the field and in life.
“His first year was my freshman year, so I’ve had the honor of playing for him for all four seasons,” Gonzalez said. “Everyone knows about his success on the field, but off the field is really where he’s great. He builds close relationships with everyone. He’s a good coach, but he’s a better person, and everyone appreciates that.”
His biggest task this season, perhaps, was maintaining focus for a team that was achieving more success than any in the school’s history. He credited his coaching staff and his seniors for helping the team not lose sight of its goal.
“We had our first meeting before the season and talked about what our goal was,” he said. “The seniors and coaches did a great job of maintaining focus.
“This award I’m winning, to me, is more of a coaching staff award. It goes to all of them as well.”
But at the end of the season, there was no celebration. Players did not jump in the lake behind the right-field fence, as is tradition for state champions.
Ultimately, they fell short of their biggest goal.
But neither Kemp nor his players look back on the season with regret.
“We knew a bad game was going to come eventually,” Gonzalez said of the series loss to Ringgold. “It was too bad it happened then. But now that I’m here at college, I can really look back and see what we did.”
“You hate that it ended the way it did,” Kemp said. “But the kids played hard. Things didn’t go our way at the end there, but I’m proud of the guys and what they accomplished.
“During that winning streak, we were all so caught up with our goal that we didn’t make a big deal about it. Now that the season’s over, you can reflect and really realize how unbelievable our run was.”