As baseball teams around Georgia get set for the first official day of practice on Monday, coaches in Region 1-5A are gearing up for what they expect to be another tight finish in the region.
Last year, it was a tight finish between Columbus and Harris County for a region championship and a three-way race for the final two spots between LaGrange, Hardaway and Northside. Out of those three, Northside was on the outside looking in when the dust settled, giving it some motivation to take a step in the right direction this season.
If it does, the amount of experience it returns will be a major reason why.
Patriots coach Dee Miller listed off nearly an entire lineup worth of contributors from last year’s team that would be back in 2016. Drew Haywood, Jalen Latta, Gage Brown, Marcus Eberhart, Chantler Valero, and more.
“It’s nice having a lot of guys coming back,” Miller said. “You’ve got a good idea of the makeup of the team from Day 1.”
But that doesn’t always equate to success. Miller was quick to point out how much improvement would be necessary over the offseason and beginning with Monday’s practice for the Patriots to make the jump to the postseason this year.
“We’ve got to get better,” he said. “We have a lot of guys coming back off a team that didn’t make the playoffs. If we didn’t develop, then we don’t know how the season is going to go. But we think these guys have put in the work, so there are some high expectations.”
Columbus, Hardaway and Harris County will all, obviously, be in the mix right around Northside. Columbus lost a number of key players off of a team that won the region a year ago, but for a program like the Blue Devils’, expectations will always be high.
“We’ve got a lot of question marks right now,” said coach Chad Mathis, who is going into his first full season as the team’s coach after taking over for Bobby Howard early in the year in 2015. “That’s not typical of Columbus High, but there are a lot of unanswered questions. I know we’re going to be competitive, though. A lot of these guys who didn’t play much last year are going to have to step up quick. It’s a good opportunity for some of these guys who didn’t play much last year.”
One key player Columbus will return is pitcher Cason Greathouse, who was named All-Bi-City pitcher of the year last year. He was the team’s most valuable player and will be called upon to lead again this season.
Hardaway, too, will be breaking in a number of new players this year, or at least having guys who played smaller roles a year ago relied upon as leaders this year. Coach Chris Gilstrap said he believes the team has proven over the past few years, though, that it is capable of maintaining success over time despite the graduation of key guys.
“We always expect to do well,” he said. “The past couple years has shown we’re near the top year in and year out no matter what we have, what we graduate. I feel the same way this year. We have some guys who are inexperienced as far as game play, but they know what they’re doing. It’s just their turn.”
Harris County will contend again, as well, and the coaches around the region expect another tight finish.
“There’s no doubt,” Miller said with a laugh. “There’s no doubt this region is going to be tight every year. Some teams graduated key players, but they’ll be just as talented. It’ll be a dog fight every week. We just have to be prepared.”