For as prolific as Jefferson’s regular season was last year, there was no May baseball to show for it.
And the Dragons haven’t forgotten that.
After a stellar 24-1 regular-season record and a No. 1 ranking for most of the season, Jefferson’s baseball season ended with a first-round state playoff exit in late April against Westminster. The quick departure came on the heels of a state title in 2018.
“You go from winning a state championship to losing in the first round with a team that had a really, really good season,” Dragon coach Tommy Knight said. “It kind of leaves you a little empty.”
Knight, in his 20th year at Jefferson (1994-1996 and 2004 to present), said the sentiment among the team is, “We’re not doing that again.”
“I think they are hungry, yes,” he said. “They’re ready to get going again. We didn’t play long enough last year.”
To that end, Knight has decided to put his team through the grinder in non-region play to prep it for the postseason rigors. Jefferson’s schedule will include Woodward Academy, Oconee County, North Oconee, Parkview and Marist, among others. Parkview won 36 games and the Class AAAAAAA state title last year.
If Jefferson has played a tougher non-region schedule before, Knight doesn’t remember it.
“I guarantee you this year we will in challenging situations the entire non-region schedule,” he said. “There’s a method behind it. I just want our guys to be ready when playoff time comes.”
Jefferson will go about its business a bit differently this year, at least offensively. In the past, the team could rely on driving the ball to the gaps — or even out of the park — with players like Lane Watkins, Ryan Godfrey and Zac Corbin. This year’s Dragons will commit much more to small ball to generate runs.
“These guys understand they’re not a team that’s going to go out there and drive the ball into the gaps,” Knight said. “We’re going to have to bunt. We’re going to have to hit-and-run. We’re going to have to manufacture some things.”
Offensively, the defending region champions will rely on Trey McEver, Cole Watkins, Mason Cooper and J.J. Rapp as the key bats in the lineup.
On the mound, Jefferson should be well-armed with Brycen Jewell (returning region pitcher of the year), Rem Maxwell, Jasper Amadek, Austin Bell, Rapp, Kallon Cook, Jake Walker and Jackson Perry.
“You won’t see the same type of pitcher over and over from us, that’s for sure,” Knight said. “I feel good about our pitching staff.”
Defensively, Cooper returns at catcher as a third-year starter. McEver will shift from outfield to first base. Rapp transitions to a full-time role at second base. Watkins moves over from second to shortstop, while Landon Richards will assume a role at third base. Maxwell will slide from right field to center field. Walker and Nick Sellers are battling for the starting nod in right field. Kade McNally returns to the outfield after missing the 2019 season with a knee injury sustained in a 2018 football game. Hayden Phillips (outfield) and Ease Barker (infield) will also see playing time. Bowman Horne (infield) could factor into the team's plans, too.
Knight said figuring out how to make different pieces of a team meld together is one of the joys of coaching.
“Putting the pieces of the puzzle together, for me, is fun every year," he said. "And just the different personalities. You’ve got all kinds of kids. Watching them mesh and jell with each other … We let our guys have fun.”
NOTES: Jefferson will play at renovated Horace J. Jackson Field this season. The Dragons have a new brick storage room, a rebuilt home dugout and brick walls extending to the bullpens on both sides of the field with netting to protect fans. “It looks good … It makes it feel more like a park,” Knight said. … Knight underwent offseason knee surgery. While he can throw batting practice, he “won’t be 100 percent” until April or May. Knight praised his assistant coaches for handling what he couldn’t while he was out. “My staff is awesome,” he said. “They make a big difference in our program.”