The stage was set earlier this week as both Buford High and Locust Grove swept through their semifinal opponents to reach the GHSA Class AAAA Baseball State Championship, which will be held today at Gerald McQuaig Field in Buford.
The opening doubleheader is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. with Game 2 following.
The top-ranked Wolves (31-3) and second-ranked Wildcats (31-4-1) are set to meet in a rematch of an Elite Eight matchup from the 2015 playoffs, in which Buford won 10-5 and 8-5 on its way to taking the state championship.
Earning a berth into the state title game this season, Locust Grove is in its first championship baseball series in school history. The school is just in its seventh year open.
Buford, other than picking up a ring in 2015, has won championships in 2011 and 1977.
The Wolves have made their way through the 2016 playoffs by sweeping Whitewater, Bainbridge, Cartersville and Eastside. Buford has outscored opponents 74-26 in its eight playoff games thus far.
Locust Grove went to three games in each of the first three rounds, topping Crisp County, North Hall and Heritage (Catoosa). In the semifinal round, the Wildcats swept Veterans with 2-0 and 8-7 victories.
The two teams have played each other once this season, a Feb. 29 contest which ended 3-0 in favor of Locust Grove.
The prior meeting was just the third game of the year for Buford and the fifth on the schedule for the Wildcats.
Though he’s seen Buford this year, Locust Grove coach Stephen Phillips said he feels like this time around, it’s two different teams going to battle.
“I feel like we’re playing a different team,” Phillips said. “Early in the season, pitching is going to be ahead of hitting a lot of times.”
Now, Phillips said the both teams have had a chance for hitters to see good pitchers and vice versa.
Pitching has been the mainstay for the Wildcats this season, allowing a total of 74 runs on the year.
No matter how good those on the mound are for Locust Grove, Phillips knows his defense has to bring its best against the Wolves, who have put up 326 runs this season (9.6 per game).
“They have some guys in the lineup that are going to move on and play at a high level, be it Division I or even getting drafted straight away,” Phillips said. “I don’t see us coming in here and pitching two shutouts. We’re going to give up runs, but we have to make sure they earn them.”
Buford coach Tony Wolfe said he thinks the matchup of the Wolves’ bats and Locust Grove’s pitchers is “going to be a big part” in determining the winner of the series.
“We depend on our offense to get us going,” Wolfe said. “We have a good pitching staff too, but, our offense, we need them to perform well. It’ll be interesting to see how that matchup turns out as we go through the series.”
The Wildcats have put up 291 runs this season, so they have no shortage of plate presence themselves. The Wolves have done their part in being stingy on defense with 81 runs allowed in 34 games.
Coming up with timely hits is not something Buford did well against Locust Grove in February, but Wolfe knows that’s also going to be a key as to who is left holding the championship trophy at the end of the series.
“As we looked back at that game, we left 15 people on base and were 0 for 13 with runners in scoring position. That’s not who we’ve been throughout the season,” Wolfe said. “I think we need to take advantage of timely hits.”
Being able to take advantage of chances to score is something Wolfe doesn’t see either team having the option to do often.
“I don’t think opportunities are going to be rampant,” Wolfe said. “Both pitching staffs are good enough to shut you down.”
Outside of having an early preview of the championship opponent, Wolfe said the February meeting against Locust Grove proves another purpose.
“The night of the loss to Locust Grove, it wasn’t focusing on who lost and won that day,” Wolfe said. “The real focus was who improved the most from February to May and we get to find out (today).”
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Locust Grove: The Wildcats are powered by junior pitcher Ethan Lindlow, a left-hander who allowed just two earned runs through 24 innings of work during the regular season.
Lindlow tossed a no-hitter against Heritage (Catoosa) in the third round and a two-hitter against Veterans. In those two starts he combined for 14 innings, two hits, no earned runs and 18 strikeouts.
Senior Christian Young is the No. 2 on the staff this season and is a four-year varsity player.
At the plate, the Wildcats are known to grind out games.
“We’re not a power-hitting team,” Phillips said. “We’re going to do what it takes to get runners on and score, but we’re not looking for the longball.”
Center fielder Joah Curry has hit for a .433 average and led the team in runs as the leadoff hitter.
Trevor Sellers, a .464 hitter with 27 RBIs, and Clay Shearouse make up the middle of the lineup. Odlanier Rodriguez (.407) is the Wildcats’ spark plug.
Despite losing five starters off last year’s Elite Eight squad and being on the main stage of the championship round, Locust Grove isn’t afraid of pressure. The Wildcats have been able to pick up wins in pressure spots and in walk-off fashion as they’ve made their way through the state bracket.
“It’s a big stage and we’ve never been here before,” Phillips said. “(Buford) has plenty of experience in the past. We want to show up and play well and represent our community to the best of our ability.”
Buford: The Wolves are led off the mound by Justin Glover, a University of Georgia signee.
Glover is 9-0 this season with 57 innings pitched and a 1.71 ERA in 10 starts. He’s tossed four complete games and has 64 strikeouts on his record.
Glover will start Game 1 for the Wolves.
Starting Game 2 is Griffin Jolliff, a Georgia Tech signee, who also boasts a 9-0 record. In his 11 starts, Jolliff has 89 strikeouts, 57 innings pitched and four complete games.
Buford is led at the plate by Kennesaw State signee Brandon Marsh, who holds a .542 batting average. Marsh, the Wolves’ leadoff hitter, has 19 stolen bases this season, topped only by Georgia Tech signee Austin Wilhite.
Wilhite, the No. 2 batter, has 20 stolen bases and also leads the team with a .508 average with runners in scoring position. His overall average rounds out at .490.
Nick Wilhite (also a Georgia Tech signee), Jolliff and Glover are also hitting over .400 on the season.
The Wolves enter the game ranked No. 8 nationally by Perfect Game and 20th by Baseball America. Those numbers bring with a few things with them that have been handled well by the players, according to Wolfe. Still, once the series starts, none of it will matter.
“All that is well and good until the first pitch (today). Then, it doesn’t matter,” Wolfe said. “It’s great for our program, but it brings with it and expectation and pressure. Our kids have done well keeping that where it needs to be and working the process to improve and win.”