The Apalachee baseball team was among a handful of local senior-heavy spring sports teams last year that saw their season cut short by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, but the graduation of 10 players hasn’t left the roster depleted by any means.

The Wildcats this spring will trot out a core group of junior returning starters along with at least three freshmen who are expected to start and contribute at the varsity level right away, as the program looks to build off its recent success under fifth-year head coach Allan Bailey. Apalachee won a school-record 17 games and reached the state playoffs for the first time in program history in 2019 and were off to a 9-3 start when the 2020 campaign was shuttered. And Bailey is optimistic that the mix of veterans who have either started or contributed since they were freshmen, along with the infusion of new, young talent, will help them reach the postseason again.

“It’s great to be out here, and I think everybody’s in the same mindset of just being thankful for being healthy and having the opportunity to play,” said Bailey, whose team is scheduled to host Prince Avenue Christian in a scrimmage Thursday, Feb. 11, and open its regular season 5:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 15, at home against Collins Hill. “I’ve seen a lot of good things so far, and this is shaping up to be another competitive team. We did graduate 10 guys, so this year is going to be a big learning curve for several of our guys to get their feet wet and get themselves established at this level. I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do.”

Chief among the returners is highly-touted junior pitcher Manning West, who should prove to be a formidable ace in the Wildcats’ starting rotation. The 6-foot-6, 225-pound right-hander, who committed to Oklahoma State last summer and is a 2022 MLB draft candidate, had a solid freshman season as the No. 3 man in the rotation and was 2-0 with a 1.84 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 19 innings pitched in an abbreviated sophomore turn.

“He’s a big-time player, and there’s going to be a lot of focus on him, which will bring a lot of focus to our program,” Bailey said of West. “You know going in you’ve got a really good chance to win every time he steps on the mound because he’s going to battle and compete. And we’re hoping to have to that same mentality with our other guys.”

Junior Ethan Middlebrooks returns behind the plate, while junior middle infielder Colby Sikes and junior third baseman Jared Wilson are also back.

Projected freshmen starters Travor Park (middle infield) and Judah Powell (first base) are also expected to give the Wildcats innings on the mound, while freshman Colin Hedges will start in the outfield. Those three are among a talented group of freshmen looking to make their impact felt right away.

“You always want to create depth on your team and in your program in order to have sustained success, and we feel like we’ve gotten to a place where good players are continually coming through,” Bailey said. “We’ve had our eyes on this incoming freshman class the last few years when they were coming up through our feeder programs, and a lot of them are hungry to step into the mix and compete. It’s exciting for the coaching staff to be able to see that exponential growth, and we hope they can build their confidence up early before they start region play.”

To that end, the Wildcats do have an advantageous schedule for a growing team, as they are scheduled to play 13 regular-season contests before opening their 14-game GHSA Region 8-AAAAA slate March 15 against Jackson County. Apalachee will play two-game series against each of its seven region opponents, and the competitive region features Loganville (which won three consecutive class 5A titles from 2017-2019) and Greenbrier, a perennial playoff program that, like the Wildcats, moved down from Class 6A. Three other region opponents — Jackson County, Walnut Grove and Clarke Central — are teams that have frequently appeared on the Wildcats’ non-region schedule in recent years.

“We’re excited to compete against a great program like Loganville, and I believe we’re up to the challenge of facing them and all the other teams,” Bailey said. “Our mentality is we’re never going to back down from anybody, and we’re going to do everything we can to put ourselves in position to be successful, no matter who we compete against. We feel like we can be in the mix this year, and with all the experience we’re gaining, we feel like we’re lining up for a deep run in future seasons.

“If we can continue to get better every day, we feel like we’ll be in the mix.”

And while Bailey hopes this season has a better ending than the gutted one last spring, he hopes this year’s group will carry the painful lesson it learned to heart and use it as motivation.

“We’re thankful for the opportunity to play this game,” he said. “As a coach, you always want your guys to go out and play like it’s their last game. Unfortunately, last year that reality came all too quickly for them. But it was a great opportunity for them to see that, ultimately, tomorrow is not promised, so you’ve got to give it your all today.”

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