The prep baseball season is on the horizon, but the field of dreams is more like a house of horrors at Harlem High School.
Harlem coach Jimmie Lewis has only 11 players on his varsity roster this season. Nine potential Bulldogs have deserted the diamond.
"I've got 11 that want to play baseball, and they're pretty tough, hard-nosed kids," Lewis said. "I'll take what I've got and win with it. I'm looking forward to the season."
The Georgia High School Association's starting date for baseball practice was Feb. 9, and most prep squads used the first week to hold conditioning workouts.
"We had four excruciating days of running," Lewis said. "You have to be mentally tough, and the 11 we've got hung in there."
Things intensified last week, when team cuts were announced at Columbia County's public high schools.
For Lewis, though, finalizing his varsity and junior varsity rosters was a piece of cake - the dead wood already had jumped ship.
Lewis didn't specify why so many former players didn't come back. He preferred to focus on getting his team ready for the season opener against Greenbrier on March 1 at the Brierpatch.
"I'm not upset about it at all," Lewis said of the no-shows. "What is it that the Marines say? Give me a few good men. In baseball all you need is nine players. This crowd will step up."
The Dogs will rely on senior leadership from Jordan Whitaker, Clayton Bruce, Ben Hill and James Davis. The underclassmen, including pitchers Matt Lewis, Felix Chinea and Rusty James, along with second baseman Mike Morris, will have to grow up fast.
"We've got a brutal nonregional schedule, and that's good," Lewis said. "It's good to have a hard schedule early in the season so you can be prepared for the region games. We might struggle in the beginning, but we'll battle in the region."
Two years ago, a young Harlem team missed the state playoffs for the first time in more than a decade. Last season, the Dogs managed a fourth-place finish in Region 3-AAA and made it back to the Class AAAA state playoffs.
Even with the lack of players, Harlem should fare well in region play in 2004.
Defending Region 3-AAA champion Westside lost a lot of its best players from last season, but the Patriots won't be pushovers as long as Gerald Barnes, the winningest high school baseball coach in state history, is in the dugout.
Washington County and Jefferson County also are contenders in Region 3-AAAA, while Richmond Academy, Laney and Josey have traditionally struggled on the diamond.
"There's a little more parity in the region this year," Lewis said. "I think we'll be OK."
Harlem's season-opening opponent is on firmer ground over at the Brierpatch - 60 players tried out for the varsity and junior varsity baseball teams at Greenbrier.
The Wolfpack lost just two seniors (second baseman Ben Tankersley and third baseman Adam Turner) to graduation from last year's Region 3-AAAA title team, which advanced to the Class AAAA state playoff quarterfinals before losing to eventual state champion Marist.
"Last year we had a young team, and the players exceeded our expectations," Pack coach Ed Williams said. "This year we're older, and hopefully a year hungrier. It's going to be a fun and interesting season at the same time."
The Pack has eight seniors this season, including potential major-league draftee Scott Wandless. The lefty swings a mean bat and also is a major contributor on the mound.
Rich Poythress and Erik Smith, meanwhile, are two of the most highly touted sophomores in Columbia County.
Along with Wandless, Greenbrier's pitching staff features Michael Newman, Ben Dukes, Tanner Hayden, Brooks Robinson and Ryan Wallace.
"We'll need innings from everyone," Williams said.
Like Harlem, Greenbrier begins the season with an early slate of rugged nonregional opponents. In addition to local grudge matches with Evans, the Pack plays Heritage and Marist, and also faces Loganville and South Forsyth, two squads that made it to the Class AAAA semifinals in 2003.
"If we can make it through March, I'll be happy," Williams said. "I feel like we've got as tough a first half of the season as we've ever had."
Greenbrier begins Region 3-AAAA action March 30, and with the 11 region teams playing each other just one time, there is little margin for error.
"We're in a region where any team can win," Williams said. "Cross Creek may have the best pitching staff in the state, Lakeside is going to be strong, and so are Statesboro and Jones County. We hope our success from last season carries over, but if our kids try to live off of last year, we won't go very far."
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.