The Evans and Greenbrier high school baseball teams have a few things in common, and those similarities will be on display today when the Knights play their season-opener against the Wolfpack at the Brierpatch.
The 6 p.m. contest features the two Columbia County prep baseball teams that had the most success in 2002; while the slate is now wiped clean for Greenbrier and Evans, the county rivals are poised to lead the way again in 2003.
Expectations aside, there is a dose of reality to deal with.
The Knights advanced to the Class AAAAA quarterfinals last year, but some big guns - Justin Walker, Fernando Mickens, Jon Lee and Billy Thomas - have graduated.
The story is the same for the Wolfpack. The squad won a Region 3-AAAA crown and advanced to the Class AAAA semifinals in 2003, but eight seniors have moved on, including pitching ace Nick Wandless and the one-two hitting punch of Robert Davis and Philip Tapley.
Evans High School pitcher Seth Newsome fires the ball to first base during practice at the school.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
Losing such significant players would relegate most high school baseball teams to a rebuilding mode, but for Evans and Greenbrier, the future is now.
"The first game we're setting out to beat Greenbrier," Evans coach Ricky Beale said of his most immediate goal. "We're going to take baby steps, get into region play, try to be successful there, and then keep moving on. We want to keep improving every year and go farther in the state playoffs."
State playoff dreams are bound to tantalize the Knights and the Pack. Should each team take region titles, their respective state-playoff brackets would keep them at home all the way through the championship series.
That's provided they both secure region titles, and then keep winning in the state playoffs, so there's some work to do between now and then.
"Our goal is always to win region," Greenbrier coach Ed Williams said. "If you set a goal to win region, then even if you're one or two games off, you can still make the state playoffs."
Region changes also await, and that's a good news-bad news scenario.
For Evans, 2003 will be a welcome change. After two seasons of grueling travel to play a 15-game Region 4-AAAAA schedule, the Knights will go to Atlanta only four times this season.
Also, the number of quality teams in new Region 7-AAAAA does not match what Evans faced in its former region.
Greenbrier gets saddled with the bad news, as Region 3-AAAA adds Jones County, Cross Creek and Baldwin this year. Jones County was a Class AAAA state semifinalist last season, while Cross Creek earned a playoff berth in Class AAA.
With the region picking up two high-caliber teams, the Pack will be hard-pressed to defend the Region 3-AAAA title.
That quest is made even more complicated by a change in the region schedule, which has teams playing each region opponent only once, instead of the customary home-and-home arrangement used in past seasons.
"Every region game is big," Williams said. "With so much riding on each game, you have to get off to a good start."
Evans faces the same challenge in Region 7-AAAAA, which also pits each opponent against the others one time.
Another common bond is tough non-region schedules.
Greenbrier plays a pair of defending-state champions, Marist (AAAA) and Parkview (AAAAA), and also faces Loganville, which lost in the Class AAA finals last year.
"It's one of the toughest schedules we're ever played," Williams said. "We're asking these kids to step up quickly, but I think they'll handle the test well."
Evans will be tested in 2003 with games against Cross Creek, North Augusta and Hardaway. "Our non-region schedule will definitely be challenging. There are not any cakewalks," Beale said.
Of course, the teams that square off with Evans and Greenbrier probably are thinking the same thing.
The Knights have a solid pitching staff, which is led by seniors Seth Newsome and John Wehr. Travis Clark, Brad Freeman, Hank McCladdie and Timmy Steflik also will lend a hand on the hill.
"We'll have to get by with pitching," Beale said. "We're not a real powerful team, so we'll have to take advantage of what we've got."
Another plus for Evans is defense.
Junior Mike Armstrong returns for a second season behind the plate; Newsome is one of the best-fielding third baseman around; Clark takes his rifle-arm to short, with Doug Wiley on the receiving end at first base; speedy senior Chance Smith can cover a lot of ground in left field; and, the second base job will be shared by Wehr and Chris Snow.
Greenbrier will have to fill some positions with news faces this season, but that was the same story the past two campaigns, and the Pack managed just fine, taking two straight trips to the state semifinals.
"The last two years have been special, because we kind of over-achieved from where we started," Williams said.
Seniors Adam Turner (third base) and Ben Tankersley (second base) have experience and proven ability in the field, while Scott Wandless posted a batting average of .427 as a sophomore last season.
Along with his duties in center field, Wandless will help bolster the Pack's pitching corps, which includes Michael Newman, senior Brian Johnson, Ryan Wallace, Brooks Robinson and southpaw Ben Dukes.
Wallace will also play shortstop, with Rafael Parks stepping in at short when Wallace is on the mound. Big things are expected of freshman first baseman Rich Poythress.
Catcher is another instance where Evans and Greenbrier are mirror-images - the Knights have a player named Armstrong behind the plate, and Westminster transfer Jeremy Armstrong will strap on the gear for the Pack this year.
There's another tie that binds the programs - before moving to Greenbrier in 1996, Williams was a former player and assistant coach at Evans.
Today Williams is on his own turf facing his old school, but he realizes the season doesn't hinge on one afternoon of baseball.
The 1999 season-opener at Evans proved that much. The Knights won the battle when pitcher Steve Dunham tossed a no-hitter against Greenbrier, but the Pack won the war by capturing the Class AAA state championship that year.
Williams hasn't forgotten the past, and he sure wouldn't mind repeating it.
"The main thing for us is to not worry so much about what happens at the beginning of the season, but what happens at the end," he said.
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