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High school baseball: Clean slate awaits state tournament teams
First-round best-of-three series open with doubleheader Friday; Game 3 on Saturday
0426Baseball
Lumpkin County catcher Ben Brown (8) dives after a ball as West Hall's Cole Wilson (22) safely slides into home during a game this season in Oakwood. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Baseball playoffs
first-round schedule
Class AAAAA

No. 1 Region 8-AAAAA Gainesville vs. No. 4 Region 5-AAAAA Alexander, 4 p.m. Friday
Game 3 (if necessary): To be announced

Class AAAA

No. 1 Region 8-AAAA Buford vs. No. 4 Region 5-AAAA Whitewater, 4:30 p.m. Friday
Game 3 (if necessary): 2 p.m. Saturday

No. 2 Region 8-AAAA North Hall vs. No. 3 Region 5-AAAA Carrollton, 4 p.m. Friday
Game 3 (if necessary): 1 p.m. Saturday

Class AAA

No. 1 Region 8-AAA Jefferson vs. No. 4 Region 5-AAA Central-Carroll, TBA
Game 3 (if necessary): To be determined

No. 3 7-AAA West Hall at No. 2 Region 6-AAA Calhoun, 4:30 p.m. Friday
Game 3 (if necessary): Noon Saturday

No. 2 Region 7-AAA Dawson County vs. No. 3 Region 6-AAA Adairsville, 4 p.m. Friday
Game 3 (if necessary): 1 p.m. Saturday

No. 3 Region 8-AAA Jackson County at No. 2 Region 5-AAA Rockmart, TBA
Game 3 (if necessary): To be announced

No. 4 Region 7-AAA Banks County at No. 1 Region 6-AAA Ringgold, 5 p.m. Friday
Game 3 (if necessary): To be determined

All first-round series consist of a doubleheader on Friday
First round tickets: $10 for doubleheaders, $7 for single games per Georgia High School Association

Friday begins a new season for high school baseball players, coaches and fans with the first round of the playoffs. As of now, most coaches will tell their players, “everybody’s record is 0-0.”

As West Hall coach Chad Sage put it, this is the third step to the season.

“I break it up into three sections: your non-region games, your region games and the playoffs,” Sage said. “In your non-region games, if you’re not playing so hot, you get to start over (with region play). Then, here come the playoffs which is another season.”

Area teams heading into the state playoffs are scattered amongst three different classifications.

Class AAAAA

GAINESVILLE VS. ALEXANDER: The Red Elephants, Region 8’s top seed, are hosting Region 5’s No. 4 squad Alexander.
Gainesville (22-4) won nine of its final 10 games in April, including its last seven straight contests.

The third-ranked Red Elephants secured their fifth consecutive outright region championship this season, just one year after falling to Greenbrier in the three-game Class AAAAA state championship series.

Gainesville has made it to the Final 4 three times since 2012 and coach Jeremy Kemp knows how important getting the first win in the series can be.

“When you’re playing a team that’s backed up against the wall, you put all the pressure on them,” Kemp said. “You can hopefully create some situations where they’re going to make mistakes. You have a game to spare before you’re out. You just want to create that pressure of facing elimination. There’s definitely an advantage of getting that first one.”

Regardless of any pressures his team may see, Kemp said there’s one piece of advice he’d give to his players.

“Just to remember it’s just a game,” Kemp said. “Nothing changes in big games. You’re still playing baseball, you still have to make plays, no matter how big the situation is. Nothing should change in your approach or what you do.”

Alexander (16-10) lost four of its final six games of the season and closed out with a 5-6 mark in April. Still, Kemp expects the series to be closer than regular season records may imply.

“They were in the Sweet 16 last year,” he said. “They fell back to a four seed. I don’t think they’ll be your normal four seed. I expect them to come in and it’ll be a tough series.”

Class AAAA

BUFORD VS. WHITEWATER: In a rematch of last year’s championship series, the No. 3 Wolves will host the first round of the playoffs as Region 8’s top seed, while the Wildcats will travel to Buford as the fourth seed of Region 5.

Both schools have deep playoff history in recent years.

Buford (23-3) won last season’s championship over the Wildcats after being put out in the state semifinals by Cartersville in 2014. The Wolves also won the championship in 2011 and look to make it back to the deciding round this year.

The Wolves closed out April with a 9-1 record in the final month of regular season play, including winning the final eight straight.

Buford’s offense should be a highlight for its playoff run as the Wolves have outscored opponents 252-55 on its trek to the playoffs.

The Wolves brought back all four infielders, the right fielder and center fielder from last season’s championship squad.

“They really love to be challenged. They love the opportunity to respond to a big game or a big pitcher,” Buford coach Tony Wolfe said of his team. “I think we’re pretty versatile. We’re five righties, four lefties in the lineup and we’ve got three guys with 15 or more stolen bases.

Versatility and having experience in working the counts and having some talent to be able to execute when you get the chance will be the key for us offensively.”

Wolfe said he expects Whitewater to be one of the toughest Buford has faced since it lost to St. Pius X in the first round three years ago. “Just because they’re a four seed, I don’t think we can look past them at all.”

Since 2010, Whitewater (11-14) made the semifinals in 2010, 2012 and 2013. In 2011, 2014 and 2015, the Wildcats were denied in the championship round.

This season, Whitewater slipped down the stretch, losing nine of the final 10 games.

“I think it’s going to be a great series,” Wolfe said. “We’re very excited to be at home to open up the playoffs. I hope that’s somewhat of an advantage for us. It should be some really good baseball and that’s what you’d expect.”

NORTH HALL VS. CARROLLTON: North Hall (18-8) closed out the season 6-2 in April, including winning the final game of the season over North Oconee to wrap up the No. 2 seed.

North Hall hosted the state championship series in 2013, but fell to Cartersville in the series.

North Hall coach Trent Mongero said his team will be in good shape with pitching in the first two games of the series because there is no dropoff between junior Corban Meeler and sophomore Reese Olson, two guys that Mongero has referred to as his No. 1s this season.

“We don’t really have a No. 1. I really don’t know who our No. 1 is,” Mongero said. They are so close in so many ways, we really have an interchangeable No. 1. We don’t have a step down. They both are equally prepared for the challenge.”

On Saturday, Mongero said Meeler would probably be tapped to start Game 1, but that could change when he sits down with his staff to talk out the logistics of the series.

Regardless of who’s on the mound, North Hall prides itself on its defense and that’s something that will need to continue if the Trojans hope to make a run at a title.

“Defense is critical,” Mongero said. “They’ve done a pretty good job of it all year and have to keep that going in the state playoffs if we have any chance of advancing.”

Carrollton (13-13) is just two years removed from winning the state championship.

This season, Carrollton closed with a 5-4 record in April, but Mongero said he still sees a tough series ahead.

“We’ve seen them play,” Mongero said. “They’re a very impressive team. Very solid, fundamentally sound and well coached. They play the game the right way and we’re expecting a battle in the first round.”

Class AAA

DAWSON COUNTY VS. ADAIRSVILLE: Dawson County picked up the No. 2 seed for Region 7-AAA with a win over Lumpkin County last Friday and will host Adairsville, the No. 3 seed out of Region 6.

Dawson County (19-7) is back in the playoffs for the first time since the 2013 season when it was eliminated in the first round by Blessed Trinity. The Tigers closed out the regular season with seven straight victories, sweeping Lumpkin County and Fannin County.

Adairsville (15-9) is in the playoffs for the fifth time since 2010. The deepest run for the Tigers came in 2011 when they lost in the second round to Blessed Trinity.

Adairsville won six of its eight games in the month of April by a combined score of 59-15.

WEST HALL AT CALHOUN: The Spartans, Region 7’s three seed, will travel to Region 6’s second-seeded Yellow Jackets Friday to start the first round.

West Hall (17-9) is coming off of back-to-back seasons in the playoffs, being knocked out in the first round both times.

Sage, in his first year as a head coach, said his team had chances to put itself in the No. 2 slot at different points of the season. Now, after winning nine of their final 12 games and all the final four series of the season, the Spartans find themselves getting hot at the right time.

In talking to his players about the importance of staying on track, he referenced another one of the school’s teams.

“We’ve really caught fire,” Sage said. “I brought up what the girls basketball team did this year. They didn’t have the greatest full, regular season, but they got hot at the right time. That’s very important down the stretch. If you get hot at the right time and feel like you can’t be beat, you never know what can happen.”

Sage said he feels the Spartans are in a good position to make it to the second round because they’re used to playing in doubleheaders as they’ve done all season on Friday nights.

The new coach said he didn’t know the last time a West Hall team made it through to the second round of the playoffs, but his seniors would love to do it and carry the momentum into that next round.

“These guys want it,” Sage said. “They’ve been to the playoffs the last two years and they’ve been knocked out the first round both times. They’re really, really hungry to try to get to that second round. I know these seniors don’t want things to end.”

Calhoun (18-7) is no stranger to the playoffs. They’ve made it into the brackets each year since 2010 when they won the championship. Since then, they’ve been to the second round twice and the third round once.

This season, the Yellow Jackets closed out the year going 7-3 in the final month of the regular season.

Sage said if his team’s starting pitchers can go pretty deep into the games and the Spartans play “clean defense,” then, “I think we’ll have a good shot.”

BANKS COUNTY AT RINGGOLD: The Leopards will be traveling to Region 6’s top-seeded Ringgold for their first-round matchup.

Banks County (10-15) had to wait until Dawson County and Lumpkin County’s series was over last week to be sure it was in the playoffs as Region 7’s fourth seed. With the Dawson County sweep, the Leopards were assured their spot.

Banks County is in the playoffs for the first time since before the 2010 season. The Leopards closed out the season going 6-3 in the month of April, which included wins against West Hall and Fannin County, and a sweep of East Hall.

Ringgold (20-6) is also not a stranger to playoff baseball.

The Tigers have made it into the second round every year since 2010, including being defeated in the championship series by Columbus in 2010 and 2012.

The Tigers closed out their 2016 regular season campaign with a 7-2 record in the final month of play.

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