The Harlem High School baseball field was spruced up for the 2002 season, but a new paint job couldn't hide the writing on the wall.
For the first time since 1990, the Bulldogs are not playing in the Georgia High School Association state playoffs, which began last week.
The team slogan, "A Proud Tradition," still rings true, but pride couldn't help Harlem overcome the loss of eight starters who had led the Dogs to a Region 3-AAA title in 2001.
Six of those graduates signed college baseball scholarships.
With no rising seniors on this year's team, Harlem coach Jimmie Lewis expected to do some rebuilding.
"At the beginning of the season we had a parent meeting, and I explained to them that we're super young and we were going to make some young mistakes," Lewis said. "The fans pretty well knew it was going to be a battle to make the state playoffs. They're kind of like me; they've got the attitude, 'Just waiting on next year.' Harlem baseball will be a force to be reckoned with."
Juniors Matt Dobbs, Ray Fulcher, Chase Richardson, Mike Hawkinberry, Cody Wilkerson and Alan Griffin were the most experienced players, but without any senior leadership, the Dogs never found a groove.
Harlem posted an 11-15 record, and a 6-6 mark in Region 3-AAA. The Dogs placed fifth in the region, and only the top four teams advanced to state.
"The whole baseball team feels bad we didn't make the playoffs. One more region win, and we'd have been there," Lewis said. "As far as effort, this crowd worked hard. We gained valuable experience and made valuable mistakes that are going to make us a better ball club next year."
Lewis admits not qualifying for the Class AAA state tournament may have been a blessing in disguise.
"It might have been demoralizing, because we probably would have played Perry, and Perry has two hoss, 90-mph pitchers and we would have been up the creek," Lewis said. "Probably, the better motivator is not making the playoffs. That will give the players the drive to make it next year and keep this tradition rolling."
The tradition includes 12 region championships and seven state titles. Lewis has led the Dogs to five state crowns, and has compiled 456 career victories.
But now, after his worst win-loss record in 24 seasons as head coach, Lewis is ready to climb back up the mountain.
"The overall deal is, this season woke up some of these kids and made them say, 'Hey - I've got to bust my butt to get better. I didn't do real good this year,"' he said. "It's kind of left a bad taste in their mouth. They're wanting to brush their teeth by going to the state playoffs next year."
"Next year" is a new mantra at Harlem, but why wait? The Dogs were back in the weight room last week; they will be toiling in summer league ball, and the pitchers will strengthen their arms with long-toss drills.
Don't expect "A Proud Tradition" to become tarnished anytime soon.
"We may have taken some lumps this year, but we're going to issue some out next year," Lewis said. "We're going to come back and be ready to rock and roll."
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