Walking down the stairs to the basement of Wayne Vickery’s lake house is like entering a museum.
Framed collages of articles from each of Gainesville High’s five championship seasons hang on the walls. Photos and memorabilia are placed throughout the room so that everywhere you look you literally see red…Red Elephants.
Walk down the small hallway and memories from the back-to-back-to-back championship seasons of 1996-98 are there to see.
Behind the only couch in the room, the articles from 2001 season cover the wall, and in the middle of that, directly in the center of the wall hangs the archived newspaper clippings of what is arguably the best team Vickery coached in his 20-year tenure at the helm of Gainesville baseball: The 2002 Red Elephants.
“I don’t think there could ever be a team assembled with that much talent,” said Vickery, who despite retiring as the baseball coach last year, still is sporting a red and white striped Gainesville baseball shirt and matching hat. “That team just had phenomenal talent from top to bottom in the lineup.”
Hitting in the three hole of that lineup was Micah Owings, who set a state record with 25 homeruns in 2002 and with 69 career homeruns, finished one homerun shy of the national record. While he may have received most the press and attention of the scouts, Owings, who currently is pitching with the Arizona Diamondbacks, was just a piece of a Gainesville team that reeled off 20 consecutive wins en route to its second straight Class AAA state title.
“It’s pretty hard to screw up a team where seven of them go on to play college baseball,” Vickery said. “They were just phenomenal. You can sit back up on that hill now and just say, ‘Gosh almighty, I’d like to relive this.’”
Early struggles motivate an experienced team
From day one of the 2002 season, the Gainesville Red Elephants had a target on their back.
Fresh off a 33-1 season and Class AAA state championship in 2001, the Red Elephants began the year as the preseason No. 1 team in Class AAA, and with all but one member of the 2001 season returning, they had every right to have that ranking.
The polls said they were No. 1. Teams across Georgia and the Southeast wanted to prove otherwise.
“Everybody expected us to win,” said Clay Sanders, the team’s shortstop. “We had a lot of high expectations and pressure. That was kind of a motivation factor during the off season.”
Unfortunately for Gainesville, that motivation didn’t carry over during the team’s trip to a national baseball tournament in LaGrange at the beginning of the year.
After beating Dafne High (Ala.), the 2001 state champion from Alabama, the team lost twice, to Germantown (Tenn.) and Class AAAAA’s Walton.
Despite going home with a 2-2 record, Gainesville was not discouraged.
“You can’t judge a team that early in the season,” said Peter Hughes, the team’s center fielder.
Hughes was right, and as the season went on, the Red Elephants began to prove they were the top team in Class AAA. But they still needed one more reality check in order to realize their potential.
“We played Cartersville twice that year and beat them 8-0 the first time, and they beat us 8-0 the second time,” Sanders said. “Something clicked when we lost that game. It was an eye opener, and we didn’t lose again.”
Pitching + offense = state championship
“As the weather got hotter, Micah Owings got better,” said Vickery.
And as Owings went, so did the Red Elephants.
With a potent offense and dominant 1-2 punch on the mound in Owings and John Carroll, the Red Elephants steamrolled through the regular season and began the playoffs as the overwhelming favorite.
“Carroll was always our No. 1,” Vickery said.
“And it was nice to know after him, you had Micah Owings coming in Game 2.”
Carroll went a school-record 44-2 in his four-year career at Gainesville and a perfect 13-0 with a 2.38 ERA in his senior year. And as impressive as those stats are, they pale in comparison with Owings.
The senior right hander won 12 games his senior year, and finished the season with 121 strikeouts and only three walks.
“I don’t think you’ll ever see a season like that again,” Vickery said.
“Those numbers are unheard of.”
A strong pitching staff is the key to winning a state championship, and according to one of Gainesville’s catchers that year, there were no two pitchers better than Carroll and Owings.
“It was an honor to catch people as talented as they were,” Steve Cornett said. “John had unbelievable command, and Micah just overpowered everybody.”
“He was as strong in the last inning as he was in the first,” added Jeff Williams, the team’s first baseman. “He was just so dominant on the mound.”
With pitchers like that, the offense had an easy task.
“We knew if we put up some runs, we had a pretty good chance of winning,” Hughes said.
During the regular season, the Red Elephants won the majority of their games by 10-plus runs, and the offense did not slow down once they reached the playoffs.
Behind the Owings brothers — Micah and current Atlanta Braves minor leaguer Jon Mark — the Red Elephants swept each round and outscored their opponents 105-16 during their 10 games in the 2002 playoffs, winning each game by an average on 8.9 runs per game.
Along with the Owings, three seniors, Bryan Van Bevel, Carroll and Hughes, each hit over .400 that season.
Despite their offensive prowess, the Red Elephants were tested early.
In its first game of the 2002 playoffs, Gainesville met up with Region 5-AAA’s Riverwood, a team that gave the Red Elephants their first close game all season.
Up 1-0 early, an inside-the-park homerun tied the game in the top of the fourth inning, and Gainesville wound up scoring the game-winning run on an error in the bottom of the sixth inning.
“People didn’t care about what we were ranked,” Sanders said. “They were gunning for us, and we had to realize that business wasn’t taken care of yet.”
After that game, the Red Elephants took care of business by winning the next nine by more than nine runs a game.
The remarkable year culminated with back-to-back 7-0 victories against a Loganville team that had future major leaguer Brandon Moss as the star pitcher.
But Moss was no match for Owings and the Red Elephants. Owings hit two three-run home runs in the two-game series that set a new state record. (That record of 25 home runs has since been tied by Calhoun’s Brodie Pullen in 2007).
After the game, Moss tipped his hat to the talented Red Elephants lineup.
“They’re just good hitters,” he said. “They’re all aggressive hitters. They’re studs.”
According to Owings, the final game of his career was a culmination of the great season that the Red Elephants set out to have at the beginning of the year.
“We just came in here to do what we had to do and got it done,” he said.
Loganville’s coach Jeff Segars admitted that his team was outmatched.
“That was the strongest team I’ve ever competed against,” the coach said after the game. “That’s the best team I’ve ever seen at Gainesville High.”
The best in AAA, but were they best in state?
While Gainesville was storming through Class AAA en route to another championship, a team from Lilburn was proving to be equally as dominant.
The Parkview Panthers, led by current Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur, cruised to the Class AAAAA state title that year, and provided an argument for which team, Gainesville or Parkview was the more talented.
Parkview ended the year ranked No. 3 in the nation, while Gainesville ranked No. 10, but still, members of the Red Elephants think about whether they could have beaten the team from Gwinnett County.
“We would have liked to have played them, but it didn’t happen,” Sanders said.
According to Vickery, the two teams nearly had a chance to put the argument to rest, but logistics, mainly the rosters losing their eligibility, prevented the game from happening.
“We were going to do it as an exhibition game, but it never did materialize,” Vickery said.
But just because the game never happened, doesn’t mean that the players never thought about it.
“I truly believe that if we played them at the end of the year, they could not have beat John Carroll and Micah,” Hughes said.
“I’m not sure who would’ve won,” Williams said. “Of course my answer would be we expected to beat everybody.”
Added Cornett: “We always wanted to play them. And out of all the teams in Georgia, I think we would have had the best shot at beating them. In a three-game match up, we would have come out on top.”
While not committing to an answer, Sanders had the most realistic answer to what the game would have provided.
“I can’t say who would win, but it would’ve been a good money maker for whoever was hosting that game,” he said.
Remembering the time
Six years removed from their final season at Gainesville High, the seniors from the 2002 team still keep in touch and still remember what it was like to end their high school careers as champions.
“It was nice to win and go out your senior year on top,” Sanders said.
And for Gainesville baseball, going out on top meant taking a celebratory jump into Lake Lanier, something many of the members of the 2002 team dreamed about while growing up as fans of the high school.
“I grew up a Gainesville fan, and I watched all the other champion teams jump in the lake after winning,” Cornett said.
“Being able to do that not once, but twice, is something I’ll always be proud of.”
Proud could also be a word used to describe how Vickery feels every time he takes that walk down into the basement.
“I never get more amazed than when I cut these lights on and read these articles,” he said while glancing over at a framed article from Baseball America that listed Gainesville as the No. 10 team in the nation in 2002.
“That’s a pretty damn impressive team to just be a little ole AAA high school.”