2019 was not a memorable one for the Madison County baseball team.
The Red Raiders struggled to a last place finish in Region 8-AAAA. The team never seemed to get out of the gate despite a mature roster of 10 seniors.
Based on head coach Chad Gillespie's enthusiasm, fans of the Red Raiders should expect the 2020 team to be unrecognizable from the 2019 squad. Gillespie says this team is solid at all four aspects of the game and believes it will have a shot to win its second Region 8-AAAA Championship in four years.
"Really and truly, I feel like we’re going to excel in all four aspects of the game," he said. "Hitting, base running, pitching and defense. We’re a pretty fast team, we have a lot of team speed. We’re going to put a lot of pressure on pitchers and catchers on the other team.
"Really and truly, if we throw strikes and command the strike zone, team’s will have to be really good and play really well to beat us. We’re ready to get it going."
Great pitching was a hallmark of Gillespie's Madison County teams until last year. Madison County's rotation struggled with allowing walks and those free baserunners led to runs for opponents.
Only two members of that starting lineup return for 2020, Garrett Dowell and Austin Baddeley. Gillespie says both guys took their struggles last year to heart and have worked to get better.
“Those guys (Baddeley and Dowell) really worked hard," Gillespie said. "(They) really took it upon themselves to say ‘that’s not going to happen this year.’ We’ve done a lot of different things with our pitching staff to ensure that doesn’t happen.”
Meanwhile a larger staff of reliable arms around Dowell and Baddeley have competed against them and each other to make the entire bullpen better. Gillespie said competition within the pitching staff was a focus in the offseason and preseason.
"We want our guys to understand that when it’s their time to go up on the mound, their job is to give us a chance to win," he said. “Throw the ball over the plate, don’t try to be too cute with it. Challenge the hitters, because a really good hitter in high school is a .300 or .400 hitter. That means only three or four out of 10 at bats, they’ll hit. Hitting is a very difficult thing, but if a pitcher is constantly walking people, the odds of the other team scoring runs go up exponentially.”
Going into the 2020 season, Madison County has a four-man starting rotation consisting of Baddely, Dowell, Russ Bray and Jarrett Moore. However, Gillespie says there are other pitchers he trusts in starting roles. He mentioned Stephen Brooks, Chris Wilbanks and Cooper Brown as pitchers he feels can give the Red Raiders a chance to win.
Even though last year's squad had 10 seniors, most of the key players were juniors, including the aforementioned starting pitchers, as well as Adam Echols, Colby Smith and Will Whitehead. The current senior group combines for 79 total innings pitched and 62 strikeouts on the mound, and 84 hits at the plate.
“We’re in the stage of our program, to where every year, we have got six or seven seniors," Gillespie said. "There’s eight seniors in this senior class, and pretty much every one of them will play a key part of our success. Last year, we didn’t rely on a lot of seniors. They were there and they gave us good leadership, but our go-to guys were all juniors.
“Out of our first seven guys in our lineup, six of them are seniors. We have a senior leading off, a senior in the two hole, a senior in the three hole … We have a lot of seniors, we have a lot of guys who have been here for four years and know what we expect."
Gillespie's optimism about the team goes beyond its senior leadership. He's admittedly surprised by how united and driven the team was through the offseason.
“I think we’re going to surprise some people. They’ve kind of surprised me," he said. "They’ve really came together as a team. Everybody enjoys each other, everybody respects each other. Everybody wants to be around each other. A lot of times, if that happens, magic can happen. Everyone wants to be there. They all hold each other accountable.
“On Sunday, to give an example, I came to the field to do some work and there were six varsity baseball players here, hitting in the cages. They just wanted to be here. They’re chomping at the bits to play.”
The top of Madison County's order features the speed of Dowell and Baddeley, the consistent contact of Echols, and the sheer power of sophomore Eli Akins. Gillespie had a lot to say about his first four hitters.
Dowell, the deceptive speedster, leads off, putting his .483 on-base percentage to good use. Baddeley hits after him. His .414 batting average was the highest on the team last year, and his .543 slugging is the best among returning players.
“Garrett had one of the highest on-base percentages of any player that we had last year," Gillespie said. "At the end of the year, he batted .424. He’s 6-4, but he’s pretty much the fastest kid we have on the team. He puts the ball in play, he doesn’t strike out much.
“Austin was our leader last year at the plate. There were a couple of series where they couldn’t get him out. If we could have gotten anything going with anybody else in those couple of series, we would have been in the state playoffs last year.”
The power starts to come in with Echols. His consistency at making contact makes him interchangeable with Baddeley, but he showed a tendency last year of succeeding with runners on base. After him is Akins, a new face in the varsity lineup who brings a lot of power.
“Adam is our all-around hitter," Gillespie said. "He’s tough to get out, he can hit it. They (Echols and Baddeley) both need to be in the two-hole. We basically just flipped a coin. Adam is very good with hitting with runners on base. He takes what the pitcher gives him, he has some power, and he’s gotten stronger.
“Eli has really surprised a lot of us. He’s about 6-4, about 225 lbs., I’ve been around the game a long time and the ball comes off his bat about as good as anybody I’ve ever seen. He’s got really good hands and can hit the ball out at any given time. He’s hit several home runs here in practice that you have to admire.”
SUGAR HILL – Three wrestlers led Madison County to its best sectional performance in school history.
Rowan Smith (138 lbs.), Jaxon Hoetzel (182 lbs.) and Hamilton Cooper (220 lbs.) won championships at the Class AAAA A-Sectional on Saturday. Two more Red Raiders made it to the championship round and a total of nine qualified for the AAAA State Tournament this week in Macon. One more will head to Macon as an alternate.
The State Tournament begins Thursday, Feb. 13 with the opening round, quarterfinals and first round of wrestle backs. The action on Friday, Feb. 14 decides who will wrestle in the finals on Saturday, Feb. 15. matches for fifth place begin at 9 a.m. on Saturday, followed by third place matches at 11 a.m., then the championship rounds at 2:30 p.m.
Smith won three of his four matches by pin fall across both days of the tournament at Lanier High School. His win by decision was his only match to last past the second period. He won the championship with a pin fall over Gilmer's Diego Jacinto late in the second period after making a take down with just 26 seconds on the clock.
Hoetzel won all of his matches by either pin fall or technical foul. He pinned his opening round opponent in the first period before defeating his second round opponent 17-0 with 30 seconds to spare in the second period.
His championship match against North Oconee's Gavin Bloom lasted through two periods and ended with a pin a minute into the third period. Hoetzel trailed 5-4 at the end of the first period. He took a 6-5 lead with a reversal seconds into the second period, but fell behind again 7-6 when he conceded a reversal. Hoetzel finished the period with another reversal and a near fall to go ahead 11-7. After a near fall early in the third period, he pinned Bloom down for good to win the title.
Cooper won his title with two pin falls, a decision and a major decision. The major came in the first round when Cooper turned a 6-2 lead after two periods into a 14-2 victory. He scored eight points in the third period with a reversal and two near falls. Cooper didn't score many points in his title match against Oconee County's Nick Saunders, only four through the whole contest. That's all he needed as a takedown early in the second period led to a pin fall just seconds later.
Josh Kincaid (126 lbs.) and Austin Kerns (160 lbs.) lost in the championship round by decisions. Smith lost to Pickens County's C.J. Murphy in the finals 6-0, he previously lost to Murphy in the Hook Em' Tournament at Lambert. Kerns lost 6-1 to Northwest Whitfield's Jordan McCamish.
Blake Hooper (106 lbs.), Bryer Autry (152 lbs.), Tristan Poss (170 lbs.) and Nate Krickle (285 lbs.) also qualified for the state tournament. Jace Jachimski will go as an alternate.
WATKINSVILLE – The Madison County's girls' basketball team didn't get going in the region tournament until the second quarter of the consolation game Friday night.
By then, the Red Raiders had already lost their first round game to Oconee County and trailed Stephens County 24-5. Kayla McPherson did all she could to make the game close, but even her 46 points weren't enough to prevent a 65-57 loss.
Madison County finished fourth in the Region 8-AAAA Tournament and will travel to Northwest Whitfield in the first round of the AAAA State Tournament. Northwest Whitfield are the champions of Region 6-AAAA.
"In the last six minutes of the game, we actually started playing ball," said head coach Dan Lampe. "It was too much, too late. We have not played good ball. We have one game now to rectify that. They just have to want it.
"We're not playing any kind of good defense. We're not boxing out, we're not passing well, not shooting well. We've got a basketball deficiency. Our main goal against Stephens County, don't give them any three's to start the game. What do we do? We don't rotate correctly and we give them four or five threes. Any team with shooting woes, we show up in the gym, they're going to start shooting well."
The rest of the team accounted for 11 points, led by Tiffany Wilson's six points. No one for Madison County (15-12, 5-3 Region 8-AAAA) scored in the second half besides McPherson. She scored 45 points in the last three quarters and 34 points in the second half.
Her slow start was attributed to Madison County trying to get multiple players involved in the offense. It had to strip the offense down and rely on McPherson to keep the game competitive.
"Sometimes, I have to do that. I have to score the points," McPherson said. "It was a struggle to get our press together, get the offense going.
"I should have been (going to the rim) from the start. I should have been finishing layups. Instead, I took the crazy three's, that I know I can make, but I need to know when to take them and when to go to the basket."
Madison County settles for the No. 4 seed and will travel to Northwest Whitfield for the first time since 2018. Lampe alluded to Madison County's past success on the road against northwest Georgia teams. The Red Raiders defeated Northwest Whitfield 59-46 as the No. 2 seed in 2018, and they upset Heritage, Catoosa 48-45 in 2017.
"We've had success up there," Lampe said. "We've won every time we've gone up there the last 10 years. If we just come out, and play the game the entire time like we did these last six minutes, we're going to do well. Win or lose, I'm okay with that."
WATKINSVILLE – Madison County's winning ways over Oconee County continued Friday night.
The Red Raiders defeated the Warriors for the eighth-straight time. The 62-45 win in the Region 8-AAAA Tournament grants Madison County the No. 3 seed in the AAAA State Tournament. Madison County travels to Northwest Whitfield for the first round. The win came in response to Madison County's 64-61 loss to North Oconee on Thursday which ended its hopes of winning a region championship.
Adam Metts and Nolan Hill led the team with 16 points each and Willie Gaines added 11 points.
"We really challenged them to just be who we are," said head coach Bryan Bird. "That's moving the ball, sharing the ball and setting your teammates up. That first possession, I think everyone touched the ball twice. We set the tone early for how we were going to play offensively. We did a great job rebounding. When we're playing toegther on both ends, we're a lot better and we did that tonight.
"I'm not surprised we played a lot better. I knew we'd come back and play with a better effort because we always have."
Despite both teams trading baskets for much of the first quarter, resulting in an 11-11 tie at one point, Bird still thought his team was playing better and would eventually take over. His confidence paid off when the Red Raiders ended the quarter on a 5-0 run to lead 16-11 after eight minutes.
"The game was close but I feel like we were still outplaying them," Bird said. "They just had a couple of loose balls go their way and they got a couple of easy baskets."
Madison County couldn't add much to its lead through the second and third quarters, but Oconee County couldn't cut into either. The Red Raiders led 34-24 at halftime and 41-33 at the end of the third quarter.
The Red Raiders started putting the game away in the fourth quarter. Bolstered by Gaines' trifecta of three-pointers, Madison County outscored Oconee County 21-12 in the last quarter to pull away and win 65-45.
"I'm so proud of Willie," Bird said. "He's a great kid, we've got a bunch of great kids, but he's definitely done so many great things. He's been working so hard all year. To have that late start from football, his shot has just continued to get better and better.
"He's been such a catalyst on the defensive end, if he can start being more of a threat offensively, he's going to make us even more dangerous in the tournament."
Madison County goes back on the road Friday against Northwest Whitfield to play the runners-up of Region 6-AAAA. The Red Raiders are the underdogs, but that's a familiar feeling for Gaines, Zahmerius Shiflet and Harrison Kirkland who played on the football team which cashed in its underdog status for two post season wins and an Elite Eight appearance.
"We'll probably mention that, I'm sure we will," Bird said. "The biggest thing is just the belief that you can do it, and I think that's what this team is starting to get. We beat every team in our region, and I think our region is very similar to the region we're playing. I think that's an easy sell to our guys
"Like the football team, we've got to believe and go out there and compete."