At some point, Columbia County is bound to have a down year in high school baseball.
Then again, maybe not.
The last time the county had a bad year in baseball, the players on this year's preseason All-County team weren't even born. For that matter, neither were some of the coaches.
County fans should take heart, because the 2003 season should not deviate from the norm, which means we'll see excellence on the diamond once again.
Despite key players lost to graduation at every school (Lakeside took the hardest hit), there is still plenty of talent in the county, not to mention the great coaches we're fortunate to have.
As a primer for the upcoming season, let's look at the players to keep an eye on, plus take a preview of each team as they gear up for season-opening action this week.
Head coach: Craig Johnson. Record last year: 17-7.
As usual, the Lions should make a strong run at the Region 4-AAA title, and if AC can peak at playoff time, a Georgia Independent School Association Class AAA state championship isn't out of the question.
The key to success probably is outfielder/pitcher Jordan Belcher. He had a monster campaign as a junior, hitting .597 with 10 home runs and 33 RBI. The right hander is ranked as one of the top college and pro prospects in the South.
But Augusta Christian isn't a one-man show.
Shortstop Will Reese batted over .500 as a junior last season, and he also drove in 31 runs and led the Lions with 10 doubles.
Junior designated hitter Sam Pitts and big right fielder Freddie Griffin, a Westside transfer, both should provide some pop in the lineup.
Finding pitching will be the first order of business for Coach Johnson.
Belcher should be the ace, and will be joined by juniors Adam McKinney and Ben Palacz, and senior Kevin Ensley.
Prediction: The Lions should win 20 games and capture the region crown.
Head coach: Tim Shafer. Record last year: 2-16.
Coach Shafer is doing a good job of trying to build the baseball program at Prep, but the Cavaliers aren't ready to challenge the top teams in Region 4-AAA. Still, the Cavs won't be pushovers this season.
Senior Wes Mishoe is starting behind the plate for the fifth year in a row, and along with senior shortstop Marc Harrell, will have to provide leadership for a very young club.
Juniors Thomas Folk (third base/pitcher) and Taylor Bird (first base) should be solid contributors.
Augusta Prep may be able to score some runs, the at this point the squad lacks the pitching to turn things around.
That means improvement is the main objective, and Prep should be able to achieve that goal.
Prediction: Augusta Prep should double its win total from last season.
Head coach: Jimmie Lewis. Record last season: 11-15.
The Bulldogs are coming off a down year in 2002. Harlem's fans aren't accustomed to losing seasons.
If Coach Lewis can get the most out of a young pitching staff, the Dogs should be back to their old ways this spring.
Juniors Donny Demore and Jordan Whitaker, along with sophomores Jon Rickerson and Felix Chinea, will shoulder the burden on the mound.
Harlem struggled to score runs last reason, but that shouldn't be the case in 2003. Senior leaders Chase Richardson (catcher), Ray Fulcher (first base), Matt Dobbs (second base), Kelvin Sturgis (center field) and Michael Hawkinberry (right field) are expected to come through at the plate.
Also, Demore, who will play left field when he isn't pitching, should provide some offense.
Lewis is a coach that works hard, and he asks his players to do the same. This could be a fun team for Lewis, because the Dogs will be much improved from last season.
Prediction: Harlem should push for 20 wins and return to the Class AAA state playoffs.
Head coach: Ricky Beale. Record last season: 23-8.
The Knights have some talent returning, but they must replace the production and leadership of Justin Walker, who now plays at Augusta State University.
There are some players expected to step up for Evans this season. The Knights should be the team to beat in Region 7-AAAAA, and could also be among the best squads in the Augusta area.
The main reason is pitching. Seniors Seth Newsome and John Wehr are going to be workhorses on the mound, with Travis Clark poised to take the role of closer. Also look to Hank McCladdie and Brad Freeman to bolster the staff.
Offensively, Evans also has a great outlook.
Catcher Mike Armstrong is emerging as a college prospect. The junior is now 6-4, 215 pounds, so he should improve on the .351 batting average he posted as a sophomore.
Senior left fielder Chance Smith will bat leadoff, and might have a breakout season. Clark will move to shortstop, and at the plate he should add some power and drive in runs.
Also, freshman Shawn Ward is an exciting prospect. One of the stars of the Columbia County Dixie Boys World Series winners last summer, Ward will start in center field for the Knights.
Prediction: Evans plays a brutal non-region schedule, but if the younger Knights come through with some offense, Evans could go deep into the Class AAAAA state playoffs.
Members of the Greenbrier High School's baseball team run sprints in the gym to prepare for the new season.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
Head coach: Ed Williams. Record last season: 26-8.
The Wolfpack is coming off a 26-8 season. The bad news is pitching ace Nick Wandless, and veterans Philip Tapley and Robert Davis, are all gone.
Coach Williams returns four staters and will have a young team in 2003.
The Pack does not have a dominant pitcher, but junior Michael Newman did post a 6-1 record as a sophomore. Additionally, juniors Brooks Robinson, Ryan Wallace and Scott Wandless, along with sophomore Ben Dukes, should give Greenbrier enough arms to battle for another Region 3-AAAA championship.
At the plate, the Pack will be paced by Wandless. The left-handed center fielder isn't as well known locally as his older brother Nick, but that might change this year. Scott hit .427 as a sophomore, and he could blossom into one of the best pure hitters Greenbrier has produced.
Returning starters Adam Turner (third base) and Ben Tankersley (second base) will be counted on heavily.
Greenbrier has a couple of skilled freshmen, most notably Rich Poythress. At 6-2, 190, he's not your average ninth grader. He will start at first base.
Prediction: While the Pack might not have the pitching to win a state title, nothing Greenbrier does under Williams would surprise me.
Head coach: Jimmy Smith. Record last season: 22-9.
The Panthers lost all nine starters from a year ago, so some rebuilding will need to be done this season. Replacing players like Parke Dye and Preston Crews won't be easy.
Lakeside does return pitchers Craig Arrington and Patrick Bagwell, and they have some experience. Smith also is high on catchers Chris Banker and Richard Flake, shortstop Jonathan Crawford and first baseman Matt Shelton.
Hitting is going to be questionable for Lakeside, so the key for the Panthers this season is pitching and defense.
Considering the team struggled to score runs at times last year, and with nine starters gone, run production might be a problem in 2003.
Prediction: This could be an exciting year for Lakeside. The pressure of outside expectations has diminished, so the team should be able to free-wheel it and surprise some people this season.
Now that we've examined particulars of all the teams, here are the individuals I expect to establish themselves as the best in Columbia County during the 2003 high school baseball season.
Pre-season All-Columbia County Team
Catcher: Mike Armstrong, Evans (junior).
First base: Ray Fulcher, Harlem (senior).
Second base: Ben Tankersley, Greenbrier (senior).
Third base: Adam Turner, Greenbrier (senior).
Shortstop: Will Reese, Augusta Christian (senior).
Left field: Chance Smith, Evans (senior).
Center field: Scott Wandless, Greenbrier (junior).
Right field: Jordan Belcher, Augusta Christian (senior).
Designated hitter: Travis Clark, Evans (junior).
Pitcher: Seth Newsome, Evans (senior).
Pitcher: Donny Demore, Harlem (junior).
Pitcher: Michael Newman, Greenbrier (junior).
Pitcher: John Wehr, Evans (senior).
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