Months before Corban Meeler and Reese Olson mowed down some of the state’s best hitters to help the North Hall baseball team reach the Class 3A state title series, they pitched to a string.
It’s a simple drill devised by Trojans pitching coach Trevor Flow, who demands his hurlers keep the ball low in the strike zone. He stretches a string from one wall of the bullpen to the other and charts what percentage of practice pitches land below the line, with 70 or above being optimal.
Flow calls it “the starting point” for what has become arguably North Hall’s biggest asset during its surprising postseason run.
Meeler, who is signed to Truett-McConnell University, and Olson, who is committed to Gardner-Webb University, have combined to throw six complete games between their eight playoff starts, most recently doing so in back-to-back contests as the No. 3 seed Trojans swept Calhoun in the teams’ semifinal doubleheader Wednesday night.
They’ll likely need to do the same during the state championship series against Pierce County next week at a time and date to be determined in either Rome or Savannah.
“It all started before the season, in our bullpens with coach Flow,” Olson said of the duo’s dominance. “Then we kept improving as the season went on. It’s all about keeping the ball down and letting the defense work behind us.”
That’s exactly the pitching philosophy espoused by Flow and North Hall coach Trent Mongero, and the approach serves a twofold purpose.
First, Flow said, high school hitters often have trouble making strong contact on pitches down in the strike zone. On top of that, it’s an effective way to keep pitch counts down and ensure longevity for starting pitchers.
The string drill applies to both principles.
“We focus on pounding the strike zone and not wasting pitches,” Flow said. “That started all the way back in November. We put up a line at the bottom of the strike zone, and the concentration is down, pound the zone, hit our spots.
“They don’t waste pitches. We really talk about saving the pitch count. (Wednesday) night, (Meeler and Olson) totaled less than 160 pitches between them, which is incredible.”
The pair of pitchers baffled Calhoun’s bats in the semifinals, combining to surrender only five hits and one run across the doubleheader. They retired the Yellow Jackets in order in nine of the 14 innings Wednesday night and struck out 11 batters while walking just two.
Playing to their coaches’ strategy of pitching to soft contact, the junior-senior duo induced numerous weak grounders that were gobbled up by the Trojans’ sharp defense for easy outs.
Such performances have become the norm for Meeler and Olson in the playoffs, during which the Trojans have knocked off No. 2 seed Pace Academy, top-seeded Southeast Bulloch and Ringgold, and fourth-seeded Calhoun.
Meeler, a senior, has compiled a 3.80 ERA with 19 strikeouts in the postseason, while Olson’s ERA sits at 2.20 to complement a strikeout-to-walk-ratio of 24-5 over the same stretch.
Both players have appeared in all nine of North Hall’s playoff games, with Olson going the distance in each of his four starts.
“This is definitely the best we’ve been all season, and it’s because we’ve been focusing more on keeping pitches down,” Olson, a junior, said. “Against Greater Atlanta Christian and Dawson County (in the final two series of the regular season), I was trying to overpower hitters too much. It just doesn’t work when you leave the ball up. I know the velocity will come if I keep it down.”
The right-handed tandem picked a good time to up their games. The Trojans finished the regular season losing six of their final seven contests, tumbling from the top of the Region 7-3A standings.
But after a loss to Pace Academy in the opening playoff game, Olson and Meeler have steered North Hall to eight straight wins and the team’s first appearance in the state championship series since 2013 and only its second in program history.
“They understand the magnitude of being in playoffs,” Flow said. “With the hiccups we went through in our last seven games, we didn’t execute our pitches the way we needed to. But now the focus has gone up, and when that happens, good things happen.”
Meeler and Olson have handled all but 9 innings in the playoffs, but they aren’t the only weapons the Trojans can send to the mound.
Taber Mongero is set as the team’s No. 3 starter, though he didn’t pitch for most of the season due to a thumb injury and hasn’t been needed much lately. But the senior was instrumental in North Hall reaching this stage — he struck out eight batters and allowed just three runs over six innings in the deciding Game 3 of the first round at Pace Academy.
Austin Adams, meanwhile, serves as the team’s primary short reliever. His biggest contribution this postseason came in the form of 2 shutout innings as the Trojans snuck past Ringgold 6-5 in the quarterfinal-clinching game.
Yet Adams and Taber Mongero simply haven’t needed to be called upon much during the state tournament, which isn’t all that different from the regular season.
Flow said Meeler (8-4, 1.90 ERA this season) and Olson (12-1, 1.40 ERA) have each pitched more than 50 innings more than the next closest pitcher, which Trent Mongero attributed to the duo’s execution and mental toughness.
“Knowing that we don’t have to piece together games is a huge confidence booster for us,” Flow said. “Reese and Corban will give five-plus solid innings, and we don’t have to find the next guy.”
Before they trot off to take the mound in the first inning of games, Flow reminds his star pitchers to “focus on the string.”
It’s a tactic that has taken the Trojans to the brink of their first-ever state championship.
“They block everything out and remember what it feels like and where the string is in relation to where we want to throw,” Flow said. “If they continue to do that and be consistent in practice, it carries onto the mound.
“It eliminates some anxiety because they’ve done it so many times, and they’ve really shown that in the playoffs.”