Before the start of the 2009 baseball season, most people felt like Lakeside High School had a playoff team. Few, however, had them pegged as region champs.
Playing in a region that boasted perennial powers such as Harlem, Evans and Westside, the Panthers seemed to be getting overlooked. And when most people discussed first-year head coaches in the county, the talk was about Greenbrier's Chris Wilkins. After all, he was taking over a program that had won state titles in two of the past three seasons.
Lakeside's new coach, T.J. Davis, was certainly flying under the radar. And despite the fact that Lakeside returned several talented players from last season, when the talk turned to marquee players in the county, most people brought up T.D. Davis (Greenbrier), Tevin Nelson (Evans) or Patrick Gamblin (Harlem). So a spot in the playoffs would have likely made most Panther fans happy.
Well, Davis did not plan on settling for a playoff spot. The former Evans pitcher guided the Panthers to the top spot in Region 3-AAAA. After starting the season 1-3, the Panthers have been incredible, posting an overall 24-5-1 mark.
During that stretch, their pitching staff posted eight shutouts, and the Panthers had four games where they yielded only one run. In the 23 wins, they outscored the opposition 235-65. In its recent 10-game unbeaten streak, Lakeside scored more than 10 runs six times, including in five of six games to end the regular season.
Bottom line: It has been a year to remember for the Lakeside faithful. However, in a county where their rivals have claimed 17 state baseball titles, a 24-5-1 mark is impressive, but it will not go down as one of the all-time best in county history.
The Panthers can change that if they continue to sweep through the state playoffs. After series sweeps of Griffin and Harris County, Lakeside will head to Atlanta on Monday for an Elite 8 showdown with Marist, one of Georgia's premier programs.
There are plenty of teams still alive throughout the state that can lay claim to having better individual stars than Lakeside, but it is hard to imagine any of them being a more balanced team. A different Panther can step up on any given night, and so far the playoffs have been a showcase of that balance.
In its first-round sweep of Griffin, right fielder Zach Hayden (junior) was the hitting star, going 6-for-7 at the plate, while senior Colin Parker chipped in with four hits.
In Round 2 it was Patrick Arrington, who exploded for six hits, going 6-for-8. He got help from Jeffrey Stoner in Game 1.
The junior first baseman/pitcher went 2-for-3 with a pair of RBI. At any given time, designated hitter Preston Pye, second baseman Spencer Starnes, third baseman Ben Black and catcher Mike Gram can step up and be the star.
Gram, who has signed to play at Limestone College, is a returning All-County performer behind the plate. This year, with players like Starnes and Black, the Panthers have blossomed into the area's best team.
On the mound the Panthers have gotten terrific starting efforts from the one-two punch of Ryan Hutchins and Harrison Brawley. Hutchins has been outstanding this season and has lived up to the potential he showed as a sophomore. Brawley has built on his success from a year ago, when he came out of nowhere to earn All-County Honors. Davis also has gotten plenty of solid innings from Black, Will Hogan (junior), Stoner (junior) and Ryan Shipp, a senior who will play at Brewton Parker next season.
Lakeside will have their hands full Monday. Marist is 26-4 and has not lost a game in AAAA all season. However, the War Eagles better not do what many in Columbia County did in the preseason: look past Lakeside. If they do, the Panthers just might make their way to the Class AAAA Final Four.
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