Evans pitchers Hank McCladdie (from left), Brad Freeman, Zach Baker and Tim Steflik will be counted on this season for the Evans Knights.
Photo by Jonathan Heeter
Evans baseball coach Ricky Beale would say the performance of his starting pitchers in last year's state playoffs ranks with the best pitching he'd ever seen.
In the first round of the Class AAAAA playoffs, Beale sent Hank McCladdie and Brad Freeman to the mound against Dacula.
McCladdie pitched Game 1 of the series. The then-junior threw 10 innings of shut-out ball before Ken Raborn hit a game-winning single to take the game 1-0.
Not to be outdone, Freeman tossed a no-hitter in Game 2 as the Knights won 10-0 and advanced to the second round.
"I don't know what to say about those two games," Beale said. "Those guys went out there and did what you hope every pitcher will do in the playoffs. That gives those guys tremendous confidence heading into this season."
The third pitcher of the Knights' triumvirate, Zach Baker, also pitched well against Lassiter in round two, Beale said.
The good news for Beale is that all three pitchers return this season, along with promising senior Tim Steflik, who missed most of last season with a torn ligament in his elbow.
The foursome will be counted on to take Evans back to the playoffs this season after dropping down a classification from Class AAAAA. The Knights' season begins Feb. 28 against Hephzibah.
"I'm very excited about this season," McCladdie said. "I fully expect us to be playing for a state ring at the beginning of the summer."
All four pitchers say they have a state title in mind and that they would love to continue the tradition Terry Holder began at Evans. Holder won five state titles at Evans from 1988 to 1994.
Beale stopped short of saying Evans would be a state title threat, commenting that the region comes first.
Steflik is preparing a comeback this season after elbow surgery. Evans coach Ricky Beale hopes the pitchers will help carry the team through regionals and into the state finals.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
"In high school baseball, you must have great pitching to be successful," Beale said. "You can score 10 runs but if the other team scores 15, you lose. Our region is so good, we will have to limit teams to fewer than four runs to win."
Most area coaches believe that, if the Knights' staff lives up to its potential, Evans could be the team to beat in Region 2-AAAA.
"Top to bottom they are all quality pitchers," said Lakeside coach Jay Matthews. "If [Steflik] can contribute they could be one of the best teams in the state. Even if he can't, they will still be tough to beat every night."
Last season, McCladdie and Freeman were named All-County First Team by The News-Times, while Baker was on the second team.
"All three of those guys were outstanding last season," Beale said. "They gained confidence as the season went on and it will hopefully pay off this year."
McCladdie went 6-2 with a 3.09 ERA last season as the Knights' ace.
"We know Hank will go out there and battle every pitch and every inning," said Beale, who expects McCladdie to start the season as staff ace. "He's also smart enough to know not to press when he is tired just for his ego. He is a team player and will not jeopardize his teammates."
Freeman led the Knights with a 2.86 ERA and went 5-4.
"Brad caught a lot of hard-break losses last year," Steflik said. "Look at his ERA and you will see just how good he was last season."
Baker was 5-1 with a 3.32 ERA as Evans' third man in the rotation.
"He's not going to throw it by anyone," said Beale about Baker. "But he is very smart. He uses off-speed pitches to his advantage."
The biggest question is what will Steflik be able to do.
"If Timmy can return to form, then we can get to the state finals," Freeman said. "He is that good."
Beale said he expects Steflik to be able to contribute in early April, 12 months after he blew out his elbow. The timetable for a return from surgery typically lasts from 12 to 18 months.
"I think I will be ready to go this season," said Steflik. "No, I know I will be ready to go."
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