Many factors go into a high school baseball team winning a state championship, and luck certainly plays a part.
The Lakeside High School baseball team hasn't had much luck, which partly explains why the Panthers are still searching for their first state title.
In five of the past eight seasons, Lakeside has lost in the state playoffs to a team which eventually claimed the Georgia High School Association crown.
The luck of the draw has been particularly cruel the last two years, as Lakeside lost to Lowndes in the first round of the 2000 state playoffs, and then was ousted by Shaw in first-round action in 2001.
"It's been amazing. We've just caught them early," Lakeside coach Jimmy Smith said of the misfortune of facing state champs in the playoffs.
It should be noted that Lakeside put up a good fight against both Lowndes and Shaw, and that experience taught the current Panthers an invaluable lesson - namely, that there's not much difference between the teams that go all the way and the ones who go home early.
"The players know that it takes just a little more pitching and hitting," Smith said.
This season the Panthers may have that little something extra.
With 12 seniors on the roster, including six returning starters, plus a stable of solid pitchers, Lakeside should improve on its 18-9 record from last season.
"You don't want to have too many expectations, but if they play like they should, and can, we'll have a good year," Smith says. "They all know it's their senior year and they want to do the best they can."
And marginal improvement might mean avoiding a killer first-round matchup in the state playoffs.
Parker Dye, Carlos Markyna, Wes Turner, Preston Crews, Brant Evans and Danny Ryan all started last season as juniors, while senior Eric Mamo steps in at first base this year. Also, Andy Dyke and Steven Lewis are primed to give the Panthers an entire starting lineup of seniors.
Senior pitchers are Markyna, Matt Josephson and Chris Synan. Junior pitchers Patrick Bagwell and Craig Arrington give the staff some depth, while Matt Daniels and Crews should contribute some on the mound.
Lakeside opens the 2002 season at home Monday, with a 6 p.m. game against Clarke Central, then follow with two non-region opponents on Wednesday (at North Augusta, 6 p.m.) and Thursday (at home vs. Harlem, 5 p.m.).
Hitting was Lakeside's downfall last year - the Panthers hit only .278 as a team, and that meager average was one reason why Lakeside had to settle for third place in Region 3-AAAA.
This year, though, it shouldn't take Lakeside long to find a groove at the plate. Most of the team's seniors played fall baseball, and that has helped hone their swings, according to Smith.
"I've seen a lot of difference in their hitting this year," he said. "We all knew that was one area that we had to improve, and they've all worked hard on that."
The Panthers begin the Region 3-AAAA slate next week, when Burke County visits Lakeside on March 11 at 6 p.m. Statesboro is the defending region champion, Greenbrier was No. 2, and Burke County was fourth behind Lakeside.
Also included on the Lakeside schedule this season is Evans. The Panthers have not played the Knights since the 2000 season, but the Columbia County rivals will battle on March 16 at Evans, and on March 22 at Lakeside.
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