One Columbia County high school baseball team has taken its cuts, and the other squads are standing by with bats and gloves, ready to take the diamond.
The 2004 prep baseball season has arrived, just in time to sweep away the winter doldrums.
As usual, Columbia County is brimming with baseball talent, and expectations are high.
Augusta Prep christened the campaign with games this weekend, while the other five county teams open the season with contests this week. The first pitch for Harlem and Greenbrier is Monday at the Brierpatch, Evans plays host to Hephzibah on Monday, Augusta Christian starts at home Tuesday against Home School, and Lakeside gets going with a Thursday matchup at Screven County.
Area fans are anxious to see the show, so here's a rundown of each Columbia County team, along with the annual Pre-Season All-County selections.
Augusta Christian Lions
Head coach: Craig Johnson
2003 record: 16-4-2 (advanced to second round of the Class AAA playoffs)
Key players lost: Jordan Belcher, Will Reese, Scott Brantley, Kevin Ensley
Projected starters for 2004: Catcher - Josh Whitaker (freshman); first base - undecided; second base - Jonathan Herriman; third base - undecided; shortstop - Adam McKinney (senior); left field - Ben Palacz; center field - Toby Brown; right field - Dwight Banks; designated hitter - Freddrick Griffin; pitchers - McKinney, Palacz, Herriman, Hunter Hensley.
Evans catcher Mike Armstrong scoops up a pitch during practice. He is on Ashley Brown's pre-season, all-county baseball team.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
Season outlook: Perhaps no team in the CSRA lost more offensive production from last year than Augusta Christian. With Belcher and Reese gone, McKinney becomes the leader on the mound and at the plate. The Lions have some rebuilding to do, but will still be one of the top teams in the Georgia Independent School Association.
Augusta Prep Cavaliers
Head coach: Tim Shafer
2003 record: 4-12
Key players lost: Mark Harrell (pitcher, shortstop), Wes Mishoe (pitcher, catcher, third baseman)
Projected starters for 2004: Catcher - undecided; first base - Taylor Bird (senior); second base - Spencer Morgan (freshman); third base - Trey Minor (sophomore); shortstop - Thomas Folk (senior); left field - undecided; center field - Alex Murphey (junior); right field - Will Bruker (senior); designated hitter - Bob Wilson (senior); pitchers - Minor, Ken Davis (sophomore).
Season outlook: Shafer's squad has improved over the past couple of seasons, and if the Cavaliers can get enough innings from pitchers Minor and Davis, they'll be very competitive this season. Folk is Prep's top player, and should have a shot at making the all-region team.
Head coach: Ricky Beale
2003 record: 15-8 (lost in first round of the Class AAAAA state playoffs)
Key players lost: Seth Newsome (pitcher, third base), John Wehr (pitcher), Chance Smith (outfield)
Projected starters for 2004: Catcher - Mike Armstrong (senior); first base - Doug Wylie (senior); second base - Brad Freeman (junior), Stephen Keeler (junior); third base - Ken Raborn (junior); shortstop - Chris Rhea (junior); left field - Ben Stapleton (junior), Trey Beatty (senior), Kyle Wilkerson (junior); center field - Shawn Ward (sophomore); right field - Hank McCladdie (junior); designated hitter - Zack Baker, Ryan Pressley (junior); pitchers - Tim Steflik (senior), McCladdie, Freeman, Baker, Beatty, Josh Grant (sophomore), Cory Rodgers (sophomore).
Season outlook: The Knights must replace some key players from last year's team, particularly the pitching duo of Newsome and Wehr. Newcomers such as Rhea and Pressley need to provide some offense, and Evans needs great work on the hill from Steflik, McCladdie and Freeman. If the pieces come together, though, Evans has a chance to reach the 20-win plateau. Also watch for Armstrong to be an all-state performer at catcher.
2003 record: 24-8 (advanced to quarterfinals of the Class AAAA state playoffs)
Key players lost: Adam Turner (third base), Ben Tankersley (second base)
Projected starters for 2004: Catcher - Jeremy Armstrong (senior); first base - Rich Poythress (sophomore); second base - Ryan Wallace (senior); shortstop - Chris Johnson (sophomore); third base - Michael Newman (senior); left field - Bran Ramsbotham (senior); center field - Scott Wandless (senior); right field - Brooks Robinson (senior); pitchers - Wandless, Newman, Ben Dukes (junior), Brandon Cumpton (freshman), Robinson.
Season outlook: Williams, as always, has lined up a very demanding non-region schedule, with powerful opponents such as Parkview, Marist and Heritage. For that reason, the Pack may have some regular season losses, but if some of Greenbrier's young players rise to the occasion, Greenbrier will have a state championship caliber team.
Head coach: Jimmie Lewis
2003 record: 14-11 (lost in first round of Class AAA playoffs)
Key players lost: Kelvin Sturgis (outfield)
Projected starters for 2004: Catcher - Barrett Davis (junior); first base - Jordan Whitaker (senior); second base - Mike Morris (junior); shortstop - Rusty James (junior); third base - James Davis (senior); left field - Ben Hill (senior); center field - Matt Lewis (junior); right field - Clayton Bruce (senior); pitchers - Whitaker, Lewis, Felix Chinea (junior), Bruce, Morris, James.
Season outlook: Lewis must find some other pitchers to complement Whitaker, the ace of the Bulldogs' staff. Harlem should qualify for the state playoffs this season, but the postseason trip will be short unless the young pitchers and other inexperienced position players step up.
Head coach: Jimmy Smith
2003 record: 20-10 (advanced to second round of the Class AAAA playoffs)
Key players lost: Craig Arrington (pitcher, third base), Matt Shelton (first base), Patrick Bagwell (pitcher)
Projected starters for 2004: Catcher - Chris Banker (junior); first base - Dustin Tyra (senior); second base - Sean Harrell (junior); third base - Jimmy Johnson (junior); shortstop - Jonathan Crawford (senior); left field - Ryan Davis (senior); center field - Carl Burrow (junior); right field - Richard Flake (senior); pitchers - Tyra, Patrick Frazier (senior), Crawford, Burrow, Banker, Brandon Hicks (junior).
Season outlook: Smith has some talent to work with, but like Evans, the Panthers lost their top pitchers from 2003. Tyra, Frazier and the other Lakeside hurlers have to establish themselves for the team to fare well in tough Region 3-AAAA. Burrow and Crawford definitely will be two of the best players in the area this season.
Now that readers know a little bit about each team, here are the players expected to make the biggest impact in 2004:
Preseason All-County Team
Catcher: Mike Armstrong, Evans. Terrific behind the plate and a definite Division I prospect. He will need to have a big year offensively for Evans to be a state contender.
First base: Rich Poythress, Greenbrier. All Poythress has to do is listen to his coaches and work hard, and the sky's the limit. The sophomore is already a college prospect, and he should put up some monster numbers before his prep career is over. He hit .372 as a freshman.
Second base: Jonathan Harriman, Augusta Christian. Tremendous defensively, but his work with the bat will be a key for the Lions.
Third base: Adam McKinney, Augusta Christian. The senior hit .339 with four home runs last season, when he also played third base. He will move to short in 2004, but makes the All-County cut at the hot corner.
Shortstop: Jonathan Crawford, Lakeside. A real gamer, hit .352 with 10 doubles last season, and also had three homers and 21 RBIs. Colleges better keep an eye on this Panther.
Outfield: Scott Wandless, Greenbrier. The lefty hit .443 last season, with four home runs and 26 RBIs. Wandless has signed with USC Aiken, but with increased power numbers, he could be selected in the Major League draft.
Outfield: Carl Burrow, Lakeside. Super talented, with outstanding defensive skills, Burrow has the potential to be a dynamic offensive player as well.
Outfield: Shawn Ward, Evans. This slick outfielder should have a breakout season in 2004. With his tools, that could be just the beginning.
Designated hitter: Thomas Folk, Augusta Prep. Folk will play short for Prep, but after posting a .444 batting average last year, he deserves a spot on the team.
Scott Wandless, Greenbrier. In his first season as a starter last year, the southpaw went 9-3 with a 2.19 earned run average.
Hank McCladdie, Evans. This junior is on the verge of greatness. As a sophomore, he went 2-0 with a 2.28 ERA.
Jordan Whitaker, Harlem. The senior is the ace of the Harlem staff, and will certainly improve on his 4-5 record of a year ago.
Adam McKinney, Augusta Christian. The hard thrower was 6-1 with a 1.14 ERA last year, and he's bigger and stronger for his senior campaign.
Michael Newman, Greenbrier. As a junior, Newman pitched in some pressure-packed games, and closed the year with a 5-2 record.
Honorable mention: Evans - Timmy Steflik, Ken Raborn, Doug Wylie, Brad Freeman; Greenbrier - Jeremy Armstrong, Ryan Wallace, Chris Johnson, Ben Dukes; Harlem - Rusty James; Augusta Christian - Freddrick Griffin; Augusta Prep - Trey Minor; Lakeside - Dustin Tyra, Richard Flake, Jimmy Johnson.
Player of the Year
Scott Wandless, Greenbrier. His numbers from last season speak volumes - .443 at the plate with team-leading totals in homers (four) and RBIs (26). Also, he struck out only nine times all season. Wandless was superb on the mound as well, recording a 9-3 record with 93 strikeouts and just 22 walks in 77 innings of work. And don't forget the 2.19 ERA while pitching against some of the best teams in the state. Unless the pro scouts come calling, he will join his brother, Nick, at USC Aiken.
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