North Gwinnett had a good baseball team last season but lost in the first round in the state playoffs and finished 18-10, then graduated 13 seniors, seven that were every-day starters and one that was a regular in the pitching rotation.
So how did it happen that North Gwinnett began this season 20-0 – the last undefeated team in Georgia until last week’s series split with Mill Creek – and sits No. 1 in Class AAAAAAA and No. 9 nationally in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25?
With three freshmen and three sophomores in the starting lineup?
‘’I don’t think their age is a factor,’’ North Gwinnett coach Ryan Moity said. ‘’One benefit of being young is that they don’t pay much attention to other teams and who they’re facing. We’re experienced on the mound, and our pitchers give us a chance to win every time out. The credit goes to our players. They work hard and compete every day.’’
Those pitchers have been pretty good, starting with senior Jake Brace, a Georgia Tech signee. He’s 5-1 with a 1.31 ERA.
‘’Jake is just a bulldog on the mound,’’ Moity said. “He’s going to throw strikes. He mixes his pitches well. He’s one of those guys that really knows how to pitch.’’
Cade Heil, a senior first baseman/pitcher who has signed with North Georgia, is 5-0 with a 1.75 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 44 innings.
The third starting pitcher, new to the rotation this season, has been junior Walker Cleveland, who is committed to Michigan. A left-hander, Cleveland is 5-0 with a 3.03 ERA. Cleveland doesn’t throw as hard as the other three but can spot four pitches on any count, Moity said.
Parker Coyne, a senior shortstop/pitcher who is committed to South Carolina, is hitting .440 with 25 runs scored and 23 RBI. He has 16 strikeouts in 10 innings mostly out of the bullpen, although Moity expects that Coyne will take a more prominent role on the mound in the state playoffs if not sooner.
Coyle has been more valuable thus far as the No. 2 hitter. He scored the winning run after a sixth-inning double Tuesday night in a 7-6 victory over Duluth that improved North Gwinnett to 21-1.
The starting freshmen are right fielder/catcher Corey Collins (.348), outfielder Dalton Pearson (.375) and designated hitter Josh Schuler, who recently returned after missing seven weeks with a fractured hip. Pitcher Brandt Pancer (3-0, 1.62 ERA) also is a freshman.
The starting sophomores are second baseman/outfielder and Michael Borah (.451), third baseman Will Bennett (.368) and second baseman Chase McColloch (.241). Borah, the leadoff hitter, has 14 extra-base hits in 67 at-bats, 11 stolen bases and 34 runs scored.
Moity also raves about the team defense. L.J. Fisher, who went 2-for-2 with a homer against Duluth, is probably the best of several outfielders who are athletic enough to play center field. Bennett is outstanding at third, allowing Moity to move Heil, a two-year starter at third, to first base. Junior Michael Goehrig is the primary catcher.
‘’We’ve really taken to the importance of pitching and defense,’’ Moity said. “They’re not only making routine plays, but we’re pretty athletic and we’ve had guys take hits away. We’ve had a scoreless streak of 36 or 37 innings and another one of 22 innings, and that’s not just pitching. A lot of the credit went to the defense.’’
Moity is hesitant to predict the future. North Gwinnett has reached the state playoffs 13 straight seasons but advanced to the semifinals just once in that time (2010) and reached the quarterfinals in 2015.
‘’In the past, we’ve focused too much on the end result,’’ Moity said. “This season, we’re focusing on the process. Just win every game, every inning, every pitch. Our kids have bought into that.’’
But, Moity does feel optimistic.
“Truthfully, I don’t think we’ve played as well as we can play,’’ he said. “We’ve caught a couple of breaks to get to 21-1 (including six one-run victories), but I don’t think we’ve reached our potential. We haven’t used all we can on the mound. We haven’t had a lineup one through nine, whatever nine that is, we haven’t had them hitting all at the same time. If we play as well as we can, we have a chance.’’