When spring rolled around in 2002, Leopards baseball coach Mike Williams had a daunting task ahead of him.
He had lost nearly all of his defensive position players and was looking to fill the field with a team largely untested on the varsity level. He did so and the Leopards managed a season finishing just under .500.
But in the process, Banks developed invaluable experience that will come back onto the field when the Leopards open up the season Monday against Commerce at home.
I feel like were in a much better position this year with more experience coming in, Williams said.
Though the Leopards did lose four seniors that will no doubt be missed, especially on the mound, Banks returns nearly every starter on defense.
Last season, ace Joseph Whitlock and key pitcher Corey Sims both graduated. Whitlock was also one of the teams best hitters.
And Banks will be without its third best hitter, D.J. Ledford, who isnt playing baseball this season.
But .378 batter Ross Oliver, a senior, will return, as well as three others who hit above .268 for the season.
And the majority of the team was a part of a summer team that swept house last year. The others played in another summer ball league.
We got a lot under our belt this summer, Williams said. I think well be smarter this year and understand the game more. Everybody is mentally better this year.
Besides the teams defense, Williams also looks to pitching to be a strength this season. The Leopards return starter Kyle Duncan and Williams says Kris Drummond will surprise a few batters.
Tyler Scroggs, who pitched quite effectively over the summer, returns to the mound as a starter as well.
And Banks hopes to have Chris Denton back in the rotation. He had a 1.97 ERA through 39 innings last summer but has had some arm trouble during the early part of preseason practices. Williams expected him to be seeing a doctor this week.
Alex Cruce will likely get some time on the mound in relief this season as will southpaws Justin Crocker and Chad Joy. Both lefties should help add diversity to what was solely a right-handed pitching rotation.
Well try to work them in as much as possible, Williams said.
Adding to the Leopards weapons this season will be improved speed. Several of Banks younger players and new team members have the ability to move quickly, around the bases and in the field.
Speed will help us, Williams said. We will have to utilize that and be aggressive on the bases.
Offensive the Leopards ought to be in decent shape.
Banks batted .259 as a team last season with moderate troubles putting runs on the board at times, garnering only 141 in 24 games.
But over the summer, the team hit .326 with 155 runs in only 19 games.
During the summer, we ended up hitting the ball real well, Williams said. If we can score some runs, well be hard to handle and well win some ball games.
When asked about weaknesses, Williams couldnt point to anything specific. However, he said his outfield wasnt as experienced as the infield.
Depth could also be a factor this season. Banks will carry just 14 players on the varsity roster, the lowest Williams has ever chosen to put on the varsity squad.
But on the other hand, the low number could be a benefit, allowing more varsity players to get in playing time and limiting distractions created by an overflowing dugout.
Going 11-13 and not making a trip to the playoffs was disappointing for the Leopards last season. And theyll look to keep that from happening this year.
I think were better than that this year, Williams said. And the kids know that too. I think we will be a contender for one of those top four spots.
At the end of the season, the top four teams in the region will advance to the state playoffs. This season, Banks will see a few new faces and wont be playing some old familiar foes.
White County and Riverside, both easy wins for last years team, have moved out of AA baseball. And East Hall, a team that handed the Leopards two losses, moves up to AAA.
But Banks picks up Buford, Wesleyan and Providence, which Williams calls three quality teams.
No matter who the Leopards will face, though, they still look to be making a run through the state tourney this season.
We fully expect to be in the playoffs, Williams said. I feel confident we can get back there this year. And the kids do too.
So far, Williams reports good practices and has been impressed thus far.
Chemistry has been real good and everybody has been behind each other, he said. Hopefully we can put it all together and win some ball games. It all comes down to going out and doing it.
Powers state title three-peat now complete
Dont tell Jackson County senior Jason Powers that hard work and perseverance dont pay off. After all, his career as a Panther wrestler is a testament to just how significant those elements are to an athletes success.
After making a conscious decision to dedicate himself to the sport some four seasons ago, Powers reaped the benefits of his efforts for the third consecutive year Saturday, as he overcame both a move up in classification and in weight class this season to claim the Class AAAA 112-pound state championship in Rome.
The title marked the third consecutive state crown for Powers, with the previous two coming at the AAA 103-pound level. The championship victory came against Woodwards Zack Garner, whom Powers dispatched of, 12-8.
A strong second period enabled him to take command after he trailed 2-0 at the end of the first and led him into the final three minutes with a 5-2 advantage. Two late reversals helped him seal the win and wrap up a successful career full of accolades.
I felt like I wrestled to the best of my ability in the finals match, Powers said. I felt pretty confident after I used a Peterson on him to take the lead in the second...I felt safe at that point.
The title march secured five more victories for Powers and brought his career mark to 168-20 and a remarkable 48-1 this season.
Garner upset the only grappler to knock off Powers this season Eastsides Anthony Dicarlo 17-4 in the semifinals, something that Powers said was a bit astonishing, but not out of the realm of possibility.
I was a little bit surprised, he said. But I thought there was a chance I might see (Garner) in the finals.
Winning his third-straight did more than increase his standing as the best grappler in the history of Jackson County wrestling, it also meant that he could take a sigh of relief after all the pressure, most of which he said was internal, he was feeling this year.
I was excited and relieved at the same time, Powers explained. After the match I was mostly relieved, it was a feeling that all the hard work paid off.
Becoming the first three-time winner in Jackson County history added to a number of impressive accomplishments during his four years as a Panther, both on and off the mat.
Powers eclipsed the school record for wins last weekend and became the first wrestler to win gold in a 32-man tournament field (his previous two came in AAAs 16-man fields).
And, something that is somewhat of an indicator of how smart a wrestler he is, Powers was named Salutatorian for this years graduating class at Jackson County, boasting an impressive 98.76 GPA. He has also been selected as an Academic All-American twice.
Five Tiger Wrestlers Take Medals At State
Five Commerce wrestlers went to state this past weekend and all five returned with some hardware.
Jesse Smith (119-lb.), Royale Goodwin (135), Eric Redmon (145), Taylor Massey (215) and Ben Wilson all took medals in their respective weight classes this past weekend, giving the Tiger wrestlers an eighth-place finish at the two-day tournament in Jefferson.
Commerce also had five wrestlers place year which included both Smith and Massey.
It was about what I expected, Tigers wrestling coach Joe Hames said of the tournament. We took five boys and all five medaled so that says something for them. Im proud of the way they wrestled.
With four of those medalists returning next season, Hames said the teams performance at state was a positive sign for the 2003-2004 season.
It had its good points and its bad points, but at least we ended it on a good note in trying to build something for the future.
Smith earned the highest showing of the tournament, taking third in the 119-lb. weight class with three wins. Goodwin and Massey both finished fourth in their divisions and Redmon and Wilson both took fifth in their weight classes.
Hames was particularly impressed with Masseys performance given the caliber of wrestlers in the seniors 215-lb. weight division.
He did a good job to finish fourth, he said. It was stacked.
Heres a run down of Saturdays action:
Smith (119) won three of four matches in taking third, pinning Jay Thompson (Pelham), losing Mat Agan (Bremen), beating Jason Lee (Brookstone) 9-2 and W. Bennefield (Bowdon) 3-2.
Goodwin (135) won two of four matches in finishing fourth, getting pinned by Lyle Austin (McIntosh Academy), beating Tyler Williamson (Montgomery County) 16-2, beating Jason Mancuso (Treutlen County) and getting pinned by Dusty Barber (Bremen).
Redmon (145) won one of three matches in placing fifth, getting pinned by Terrence Almond (Pelham) and losing to John West (Bremen) 10-2 before pinning Lee Hope (McIntosh Academy).
Massey (215) took two of four matches in his third-place showing, beating Michael Durden (Treutlen County) 4-2, losing to Jarvis Blevins (Trion) 4-2, beating Justin Elkins (Pacelli) 16-4 and losing to Darrell Ingram (Bremen) 7-0.
Wilson (275) won two of four matches in a fifth-place finish, getting pinned by Chris Chandler (Montgomery County), beating David Morales 5-3, losing to Huter Glenn (Jefferson) 3-1 and beating J.R. Robertson (Pelham) 8-3.
It started with one, then progressed to two and now, after an incredible showing this past weekend, the Jefferson wrestling program can officially say that they are a dynasty in the truest sense of the word.
The Dragons ran away with their third-straight state wrestling title Saturday night, the seventh in school history, before a JHS gymnasium packed full to the rafters with passionate supporters.
It was the kind of atmosphere that brought chills to the spines of all of those in attendance.
With 10 Dragons reaching finals and five winning individual state crowns, Jefferson wrapped up the team title with ease, out-distancing second-place Bremen by 80.2 points. Along the way they saw senior Hunter Garner secure his place as arguably the schools best grappler ever, as he won the 160-pound title, his fourth in the same number of years. He is the first wrestler in school history to accomplish the feat. Not far behind was Jeremy Smith, also a senior, who took home his third crown in succession, with each title coming in a different weight division during his career. His latest was at 189 pounds.
Fellow senior Nathaniel Wilson defended his 125-pound crown nicely, finishing his career as a two-time individual champion. While his brother, Jeremiah Wilson, took runner-up honors at 130, following a controversial call in the finals. He wrapped up his career with two second-place medals and a 119-pound gold in 2002.
Overall the showing was a terrific team effort, as 12 Dragon wrestlers finished among the top six in their respective weight classes, with all but three of the thirteen team members reaching finals.
Its kind of hard for me to put into words, but Ive had these seniors since the fifth and sixth grade and its been great watching them grow up and coaching them, Jefferson coach Doug Thurmond said. This team felt like they could compete with anybody in the state and they were not intimidated by anybody because they had so many mat hours. Thats stands out about them.
Rounding out the five state champions for Jefferson were, Forrest Garner (145), who won his second-consecutive title and Seth Potts (140) who took home his first.
What made the title perhaps most memorable to many on the squad, especially the five seniors, was the fact that the win came at home, as the school hosted the tournament for the first time ever.
I cant name everybody, but coach Bob Gurley and so many others did a great job of organizing it, Thurmond said. From the lights to the smoke and everything...we had numerous people telling us it was the best state tournament they had ever been to.
And with our community and everybody else supporting us it really made it nice for those seniors, Thurmond said.
All that was left following the festivities Saturday night was to compare this years squad to previous greats, something Thurmond asserted was as more than justified.
They definitely rank in the top three to five teams in the state no matter what size or classification you look at, Thurmond said. I really believe that and this team proved themselves in all classes. I even had coaches coming up to me and saying that this was the strongest Class A team ever, so thats pretty impressive....And as far as the Jefferson teams (of the past) they rank right up there.
Diamond Raiders gear up for AAAA
Five region crowns, six trips to the state tournament, two runner-up finishes, seven 20-win seasons all these accomplishments made Madison County a AAA baseball powerhouse during the last 11 seasons.
Now, the Raider baseball program will look to make a name for itself in AAAA.
After more than two decades in 8-AAA, the Madison County baseball program is set to face a lengthy 22-game region slate this year as it steps up to 8-AAAA play.
Old region foes Jackson County, Winder-Barrow, Eastside and powerhouse Loganville will join the Raiders in the new region, but Madison County, which reached the Sweet 16 of last years AAA state tournament, will see new league competition in Salem, Heritage, Rockdale County, Newton County, Clarke Central, Cedar Shoals and Habersham Central.
Though the schedule will be different, 16th-year Raider head coach Charlie Griffeth doesnt expect life in 8-AAAA to be that drastic a change from Madison Countys old region days.
Theres nobody really better than there was in 8-AAA, there are just more of them that are good, he said. Anybody can beat anybody.
Those quality teams in the new region include 2002 AAA state runner-up Loganville of course, Heritage and Clarke Central, which both went to the AAAA state tournament last year, and Winder-Barrow, which advanced to the AAA tournament in 2002.
One of the biggest changes in the new region, however, will be the regular season format.
Given the driving distance between schools in different subregions, Madison Countys contests with Eastside, Loganville, Salem, Heritage, Newton County and Rockdale County will all be Friday nights double headers.
Contests with opponents in the same subregion will be played primarily on Tuesdays.
Like last year, the top four teams from the region, regardless of which subregion theyre from, will advance to state.
Griffeth said the formula for success a new region and classification would be the same as its been in the pastplaying smart, efficient baseball.
The same simple philosophy as alwaysthrow strikes, make the routine plays and get hits, he said. If you can do those three things, then you should win some games.
The Raiders enter their new situation without a wealth of man power.
Madison County is short on depth with just 13 players on the varsity and 13 on the JV.
Pitching will be one of the main concerns as the team lost its most experienced returning starter, Brent Burkhalter, who is currently recovering from arm surgery.
And in the field, the team will be a bit thinner this season without second baseman James Smith and outfielder Cody Threlkeld who both opted not to play this year.
Thus, success in AAAA will also depend largely on avoiding the injury bug.
Weve got to stay healthy, we cant afford any injuries, Griffeth said.
Though the team graduated six and lost two more over the off season, the Raiders return a nucleus of players which got great deal of innings under its belt in 2002.
Back are key offensive players Travis Calloway (.407 avg., 3 home runs, 23 RBIs in 2002), Trey McCay (.345 avg., 3 home runs, 13 RBIs) and Burkhalter (.333 avg.,17 RBIs), who will still be able to be the teams designated hitter.
Those three will likely comprise the meat of the Raiders batting order.
Defensively, Calloway will be behind home plate for a third season and McCay will man third while Tony Tittle and Michael Young will also provide experience in the outfield.
On paper were pretty young, but weve still got some experience, Griffeth said.
The teams youth, however, will come in the middle infield, where Corey Boswell take over at second base and Brad Osborne and Cody Ferguson will man short, and in right field, where Ferguson, Will Ryder and Micah Sales will all split time.
The team will have some experience at first as Conrad Carey, Stephen Seagraves under study last year, takes over that position.
With Burkhalter sidelined from the mound indefinately, sophomore Ben Jeffers (1-1, 5.60 ERA) is now the clubs most experienced member of a young pitching staff, working 30 innings last year in a third-starter role.
Griffeth speculated that Thad Pruett (1-2, 6.83) would be the teams second starter while Michael Young (1-0, 3.97), Will Ryder and Micah Sales will comprise the teams bullpen.
In addition to a 25-game summer schedule, several on the team got a chance to play against some of the best 15- and 16-year-old players in the Southeast as part of the state champion Senior League all-star team which came one win away from advancing to the World Series.
It didnt do anything but help those guys, Griffeth said. It was good experience for them.
JV team will be made up of sophomores Tyler Johnson, outfield; J.J. Brueshaber, pitcher, outfield, short stop; Todd Baxter, catcher, first; and freshmen Jamey Rice, outfield; Chaz Perry, pitcher, short stop; Anthony Moody, outfield; Chad Boswell, third; Kenny Reynolds, pitcher, outfield; Kirk Patterson, pitcher, outfield; Adam Crowe, second; Garrett Hochstetler, catcher, first; J.J. McCay, pitcher, third; and Josh Strickland, pitcher, outfield.
Assisting Griffeth on the varsity this year are long-time Raider coach Ken Morgan, Jared Robinson, a former Tulane pitcher; and Michael Thomas, a former catcher at Stephens County.
The JV coaches are Stanley Pruett and former Raider letterman Josh Lord.