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High school baseball: Gainesville, North Hall look to keep success going
Red Elephants' Gettys enters senior season as project top-10 pick in 2014 draft
0216 TrojansBaseball
North Hall shortstop Andrew Smith throws the ball to first base after fielding a grounder in the Class AAA state championship series against Cartersville in May 2013 at Jody Davis Field. - photo by Jared Putnam | The Times

High school baseball previews

Until June rolls around, the MLB Draft is the last thing on the mind of Michael Gettys.

Gainesville’s prized outfielder and starting pitcher is touted as one of the nation’s top baseball prospects, with a top-10 selection this summer almost guaranteed. But that’s not important right now.

Instead, Gettys is doing everything he can to help the Red Elephants avoid another premature playoff exit. One of the nation’s top programs and a favorite to win a Class AAAAA state title in 2013, Gainesville was stunned in the quarterfinals by an upset-minded Whitewater team.

That’s enough motivation to keep Gettys preoccupied until his name is called on the draft board.

“I’m just trying not to think about it,” he said. “If I don’t think about it, I play better. It’s been working, so I’m going to keep doing that.”

After losing just three seniors from last year’s 27-5 team, Gettys and the Red Elephants have a roster loaded with experienced talent, and they’re gunning for a state championship once again.

They’re not alone in that pursuit, either.

North Hall, coming off a 2013 campaign that finished just two wins shy of state championship, is also aiming high after returning the majority of its position players and reloading with a promising young pitching staff.

Other talent-laden teams, like Buford, Jefferson and Flowery Branch, are hoping for more promising postseason trips after enduring early exits a year ago.

But first, area teams have to get some weather that actually allows playing time. Winter weather has kept schools closed for several days in recent weeks, limiting practices and canceling preseason scrimmages.

“We’ve been trying to find a way to prepare as much as we can,” North Hall coach Trent Mongero said. “We’re obviously disappointed about all the snow, but everybody is excited to get on the field and compete.”

The Trojans aim to continue the success of their 2013 campaign, when they won a program-best 32 games and reached the Class AAA state finals.

They lose more than 170 innings worth of pitching between 2013 Times Pitcher of the Year Preston Graham and lefty ace Colton Duttweiler, but retain the majority of their position players.

That includes middle infielder and projected closing pitcher Andrew Smith, arguably North Hall’s most versatile athlete who signed to play football at Air Force last week with the possibility of playing baseball there in the future as well.

Smith is among three returning Trojan hitters that batted over .300 last season. They also boast former JV standouts that helped North Hall win a county championship last season.

It’s just a matter of finding some consistency on the mound. They have just 9.67 innings of varsity experience on their roster entering the season.

“Pitching is definitely our big question mark,” Mongero said. “We feel like we have some guys that can get the job done, but we certainly don’t expect guys that can go out there and dominate to the extent of the graduated pitchers we had last year.”

But North Hall’s inexperienced rotation doesn’t do anything to diminish Region 7-AAA’s talented arms.

Buford junior Jake Higginbotham has two more years to improve on last year’s 9-1, 0.70 ERA numbers before he heads to Clemson in 2015. At White County, University of Georgia commit Spencer Adams looks to improve on a 5-4, 1.88 campaign in his junior year.

It’s no surprise that the teams with the most heralded pitching talent are also the ones to beat.

“Buford is certainly the favorite — they’re picked as the No. 1 team in the state right now,” Mongero said. “White County has significant pitching back. After that, I think it’s wide open.”

Region 7-AAA’s talent could be a little closer matching — or even exceeding — the skill level of Region 8-AAAAA’s players this year. That was a region that featured two first-round draft picks a season ago, and has another headed that way this year in Gettys.

But it was a still top-heavy region, with Gainesville, Loganville and Winder-Barrow holding up the top three ranking positions at one point in Class AAAAA a year ago.

According to Red Elephants coach Jeremy Kemp, the region won’t be nearly as unbalanced this season. He even anticipates another team, one his team is quite familiar with, to pose the threat of stealing the region title.

“Flowery Branch might be the team to beat,” Kemp said. “They have two unbelievable starters that are as good as anybody. I think they’ll be tough. 

“It’s a lot more balanced this year than it was last year.”

The Falcons finished fourth in the region last year, but split a series with both Gainesville and Winder-Barrow.

Flowery Branch sent 2013 draftee Brad Keller to the Diamondbacks last season, and have another quality prospect in junior right-hander Jonathan Hughes, who also batted .450 last year.

“I really think they’ll make a push for the region championship,” Kemp said.

That’s not to say Gainesville itself isn’t still a contender for the title. Behind Gettys is a group of Red Elephant players that were pivotal in their stellar 2013 season.

It includes shortstop Sims Griffith, power-hitting first baseman Caleb Whitenton and athletic outfielder Brandon Sewell — all players Kemp expects to have breakout seasons in the coming months.

“I feel like they really improved,” Kemp said. “I expect big things out of them.”

And then there’s Gettys himself, who hasn’t left much room for improvement.

The Georgia signee has hit just under .400 over the past two seasons, smashing 13 home runs and scoring 87 runs in the process. He’s gone 22-1 with a 1.41 ERA and whiffed 192 hitters over the same time span.

Yet even after spraying hits across the field and dropping scouts’ jaws on the radar gun, Gettys is certain his best performance in a Gainesville uniform has yet to come. He credits that to a new worry-free approach to the game, a mentality he adopted last summer.

“In the previous years, I’ve played well, but I haven’t played the best that I can play,” Gettys said. “I was always worried about something. If I just go out there and relax and play, I’ll have one of the best seasons this year.”

Outside of Region 7-AAA and 8-AAAAA, other area teams are trying to make it back-to-back seasons with playoff appearances.

Jefferson, a perennial postseason contender, is looking to improve on a 26-4 season that included a Region 8-AA title and a second-round appearance in the Class AA state playoffs.

Led by Georgia commit Max Ford, the Dragons have a solid three-man rotation and a loaded batting order.

On the Dragons’ heels in Region 8-AA is Union County, which won 17 games last season and reached the second round of the state playoffs.

Jackson County also returns a wealth of experience after finishing third in Region 8-AAA last season. In Class A, Lakeview returned to the postseason after a three-year absence.

Dawson County is also looking for a repeat playoff appearance after finishing fourth in Region 7-AAA last season.

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