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High school baseball: Talent-loaded Gainesville leads area teams into 2013
Gainesville High’s Sims Griffith warms up during the Red Elephants’ practice at Ivey-Watson Field Wednesday afternoon. - photo by Scott Rogers | The Times

High school baseball previews

Gainesville baseball coach Jeremy Kemp is going light on praise for his squad right now, even though he understands fully the Red Elephants are one of the favorites with the move up two classifications and playing in Region 8-AAAAA this season.

“Looking at this region, there are some really good teams,” said Kemp, who led Gainesville to the Class AAA state semifinals in 2012.

His cautious approach isn’t uncommon among area coaches. With the GHSA’s latest realignment, many schools are in regions paired with schools they’ve never faced. That makes for a blank scouting report on coaching, pitching and offensive tendencies.

The Red Elephants made the biggest jump locally, after rolling to an undefeated region record in Region 8-AAA last year. Now Gainesville is paired in the same region against defending Class AAAA state champion and top-ranked Loganville, as well as No. 9 Winder-Barrow, which has one of the top MLB draft prospects in the nation with third baseman Travis Demeritte.

The Red Elephants aren’t the only program with a huge challenge on their hands.

Lakeview Academy returns the bulk of last year’s starters and should be considered a playoff contender, but it plays in Region 8-A with the two schools that won the most recent state championships in the smallest classification (Hebron Christian, 2011; Providence Christian, 2012).

The Lions will play at the mercy of a new power ranking system to decide the 16 private-school programs for the playoffs instead of the traditional top four format from each region used in Class AA-AAAAAA.

With so many players back in 2013, Lions coach Deuce Roark wants to have players trained to play multiple positions, a hopeful advantage once league play begins in March.

“Overall, this is a tough region we play in and it’s only getting better,” Roark said.

Most regions with local teams have a new feel this season. In Region 7-AAA, North Hall and 2011 Class AA state champion Buford are likely contenders, but both are in a new mesh of programs, some that have never played one another before.

Buford coach Tony Wolfe has experience playing programs such as East Hall and Dawson County during their days in Region 8-AA, along with early-season non-region games against the Trojans. However, much of that prior experience is no longer valuable with a total overhaul of player personnel.

“It’s going to be fun to renew some old friendships and rivalries with these schools,” Wolfe said. “I expect Region 7-AAA to be a very competitive region.”

In Region 8-AA, Jefferson is looking to make another step forward with an experienced roster, coming off a trip to the first round of the postseason in 2012. In 8-AA, only one other current region member made the postseason in 2012 (Washington-Wilkes in Class A).

West Hall’s Dustin Rennspies and Chestatee’s Kyle Counts are ready to make their debut to the local scene as head coaches.

Gainesville should feel pretty optimistic about its chances due to a very strong nucleus back from 2012, including Times Baseball Player of the Year Michael Gettys. Last season, the junior hit .389 with nine homers and 45 RBIs, along with a team-best 12-0 record on the mound for the right hander.

Some of the other names the Red Elephants will depend on are catcher and University of Georgia signee Skyler Weber (.373 avg., 34 RBIs in 2012) and third baseman/pitcher Hunter Anglin (.432, 41 RBIs).

“We really hope that pitching is our strength since hitting comes and goes,” Kemp said.

North Hall also has a deep senior class with five players signed to college scholarships for next year. Leading the way for the Trojans are seniors Griffin Olson (.316 avg., 16 RBIs), Zach Mize (.386 avg., 20 RBIs) and left-handed pitcher Preston Graham (7-4, 3.10 ERA).

Scheduling is also important since it varies widely from region to region. The only constant is that all 20 area programs open with non-region games, which help coaches in setting the field with the nine best players.

After that, every region handles its schedule differently. Travel distance has a lot to do with it.

In Region 8-AA, which spans from Union County and Rabun County in the north down to Greene County and Washington-Wilkes in the southern end (more than 100 miles), games are bundled together. To make travel easier, each team will play a doubleheader against a crossover region opponent on Fridays. Region 7-AAA and 8-AAAAA have similar schedule formats.

Schools play an opponent on back-to-back game days, with home site rotating to make for a true home and away series.

To get ready for region play, Gainesville’s schedule has all of its non-region games against Class AAAAAA opponents, mainly from Gwinnett County.

Gainesville had the biggest move up this season in classification. Habersham Central is now playing in Class AAAAAA, Flowery Branch jumped to Class AAAAA, Johnson and Chestatee moved up one level to Class AAAA and Riverside Military moves up to Class AA.

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