State Championship series: Canes seek seventh title
Monday, the Cartersville Purple Hurricanes continue a quest for the school’s seventh state championship in a best-of-three state title series against Jefferson at State Mutual Stadium — home of the Rome Braves.
Cartersville is also making its ninth trip to the state championship series in the last 18 years. However it will be the first time the Canes have played for a state title on a neutral site. It is also their first postseason series this year away from the friendly confines of Richard Bell Field.
For Jefferson, a series win would be the first-ever baseball championship for the Dragons who are surprise finalists after upsetting heavily favored Blessed Trinity last week.
The only other finals run for Jefferson came in 2015 when the Dragons finished 28-8 but were swept in the Class AAA state championship series by Blessed Trinity.
In a way, 2018 has been a big turn-around season for both programs. Both were bounced in the first round of the state playoffs last Spring. Jefferson lost to Heritage-Catoosa in the first round. Cartersville lost to Blessed Trinity in the opening round last season.
Jefferson (26-11) won the Region 8-AAAA championship and had to go three games in both the first round and state quarterfinal round of this year’s playoffs.
The Dragons edged Chestatee 3-2 in their first-round opener but lost Game 2, 5-3. Jefferson then took the rubber-game of the first round series 6-4. In the second round, the Dragons swept a doubleheader with Northwest Whitfield 3-0 and 5-1, before being stretch to a third game in the quarterfinals with Woodward Academy.
Again, Jefferson won the opener with Woodward Academy 5-4 but lost Game 2 with the War Eagles, 5-1. In another elimination rubber-game, Jefferson prevailed 10-5 to reach the semifinals against highly touted and top-ranked Blessed Trinity.
In the semifinals last week, the Dragons never trailed in a two-game sweep. Jefferson took an early 7-1 lead and held a 10-4 advantage late before Blessed Trinity rallied for three runs in the seventh. The Dragons held off the Titans for a 10-7 win.
Durable southpaw Patrick Hickox pitched 6 and two-thirds innings allowing 11 hits, seven runs (four earned) and one strikeout to earn the first game win. Freshman Derek Vaughn pitched to one batter to preserve the victory.
Junior Zac Corbin was the Jefferson offensive hero in the semifinal opener. The D-I football recruit and shortstop paced the Dragons with a 3-for-4 performance that included a home run, two runs scored, and three RBIs. Corbin is batting .340 this season and was a co-Region 8-AAAA player of the year.
Justin Cole, a senior outfielder, added two hits against Blessed Trinity as well as one run and one RBI. Freshman catcher Mason Cooper contributed a pair of hits and scored two runs.
In Game 2, Jefferson blanked the Titans 2-0 on a five-hit complete-game shutout by junior pitcher Lane Watkins who has committed to the University of Georgia. The right-hand pitcher’s performance ended Blessed Trinity’s season with a 34-5 mark. Watkins, who is also a catcher and a corner infielder, fanned five and did not issue a walk. The Dragons scored twice in the fourth inning for all the offense they would need to complete the semifinal sweep.
For many, the Dragons’ upset of Blessed Trinity was the biggest playoff upset in recent memory.
Blessed Trinity was the Class AAAA preseason favorite and was ranked No. 1 the entire season. The Titans were also been ranked in most national polls throughout the season and the highest ranked team in Georgia in all classifications. They even held a No. 1 spot in the nation in one of the national rankings. Jefferson was ranked sixth by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the final regular-season poll, Cartersville second. The Georgia Dugout Club rankings had Cartersville third and Jefferson sixth in its final regular season poll.
Other key contributors for the Dragons and coach Tommy Knight have been third baseman Clayton Jones, an Emmanuel College commit; junior Sammy Elegreet; a sophomore outfielder Kade McNally who had a Game 3 walk-off homer against Chestatee; pitchers Will Wood and Vinny Farley; Ryan Godfrey and Oglethorpe University signee and second baseman Billy Finch.
Meanwhile, the Canes have only gone to a third game only once in the first four rounds of the 2018 state playoffs.
Cartersville (31-8) won the Region 5-AAAA title to earn a 1-seed and home-field advantage in the first two rounds. The GHSA’s universal coin toss was then kind to the Hurricanes and granted Cartersville home field for the next two rounds. The Canes swept Pickens 6-1 and 12-0 in Round 1 to face defending Class 4A champ Marist in the Sweet Sixteen.
Cartersville won the opener with Marist 11-1 but fell in the nightcap 4-3 to force the only elimination game the Hurricanes have faced in the 2018 playoffs. The Canes dispatched the War Eagles in Game 3, 10-2 to advance.
Two-game sweeps of Spalding (2-1, 11-1) in the quarterfinals and Heritage-Catoosa (6-5, 10-2) in the semifinals earned Cartersville a ninth finals appearance.
The Hurricanes, under then head coach Stuart Chester, won a Class AAA state title in 2013, back-to-back championships in 2008 and 2009, and three in a row 2001-2003. 2001 and 2002 were in Class AA. 2003 was in Class AAA. This would be the Canes’ first-ever title in Class AAAA and of course the first title for new head coach Kyle Tucker.
Tucker, a ten-year assistant with Chester and a Cartersville High and Clemson University grad, took the reigns of the program last summer as an interim head coach following a tumultuous transition. Tucker (photo) had even considered stepping away from baseball to focus solely on his football duties prior to a coaching upheaval.
When Georgia Dugout Club Hall of Famer Chester moved on to Buford, Cartersville originally hired long-time Columbus High School head coach Bobby Howard to be the Canes’ skipper. Howard resigned the position days later following some confusion regarding his contract. That left the position to be filled by Tucker — first with an interim tag. Tucker then accepted the position full-time with the interim tag removed early in the 2018 season.
The moves have worked out well for both Cartersville and Buford. Chester has the Wolves in the Class AAAAA championship series starting Monday against perennial power Loganville at the University of Georgia’s Foley Field in Athens.
Throughout the season and playoffs, the Canes’ pitching has been steady and the offensive prowess has been timely.
Senior star and likely MLB first-round draft pick, Anthony Seigler, has been the offensive catalyst with contributions on the mound as well. The ambidextrous catcher/pitcher in 2018 is highly capable at any position and a University of Florida commit.
As a right-handed pitcher, Siegler (photo right) earned a semifinal round save in Game 1 where he also scored the go-ahead run. In the second game, he added a solo home run, scored the go-ahead run that broke a 2-2 tie, and finished 6-for-7 in the series.
Seigler has stepped up his already impressive .424 season batting average to .636 during the playoffs with five home runs. His pitching numbers are just as incredible despite limited use in the playoffs. He has a 0.34 ERA and 0.87 WHIP for the year with 23 strikeouts in 20 and two-thirds innings.
The rest of the Canes’ pitching staff has also impressed behind ace Mason Barnett. While the recent arm injury to Georgia Tech commit Jake Gooch might have been a major setback for most programs, it cleared the path for Cohen Wilbanks, Gage Morris, and Levi Ayers to take on even more prominent roles in the post-season.
Barnett (photo), who is also hitting .383 for the year, has a 1.15 ERA with 21 strikeouts in four post-season starts. He has worked just over 18 innings in the playoffs. Those superb numbers have actually raised his season-long numbers that include a 0.59 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in just under 48 innings for the year.
Wilbanks and Morris have combined to allow only four earned runs in the postseason in just over 13 innings each. Both have improved their season ERAs with their post-season work. Wilbanks has fanned 18 and Morris 16 in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Ayers, utilized as a starter for much of the season, waits in the wings sporting an ERA of 1.64 with 37 strikeouts in just under 41 innings in 2018.
In addition to Seigler and Barnett on offense, the Hurricanes have enjoyed the re-emergence of switch-hitting shortstop Devin Warner. Although the Auburn-signee did not produce the regular season numbers he expected, Warner has flourished in the playoffs with a .346 batting average, four doubles, and a pair of home runs.
Gooch’s bat has not been impacted by the injury that has kept him off the mound. With seven home runs (three in the post-season), .359 batting average, and a post-season slugging percentage of .759, Gooch has continued to produce in the middle of the Canes’ order.
Toss in the hot post-season bats of Lipscomb University commit Jordan Wilkie (.393 BA, 5 doubles playoffs) and J.P. Martin (.400 BA playoffs) along with timely contributions by University of South Alabama commit Preston Welchel, Ian Inaba, and Josh Davis, it is easy to see why Cartersville has scored 10 or more runs in nine of its last 14 games and averaged more than 7 runs per game all season. The contributions of Canes' senior LaDarius Winburn also should not be discounted. Often utilized by Tucker as a courtesy runner, Winburn's speed and aggression on the base paths has been effective. He has scored six runs in the playoffs and has a home run in three plate appearances.
Monday’s AAAA Championship Series doubleheader will start at 5 p.m. Cartersville will be the designated visiting team for Game 1 and the designated home team in Game 2. For both games Monday, the Canes will occupy the first base dugout.
The stadium and surface will be familiar for the Canes who have played games at State Mutual Stadium in recent years. Most recently, eight different Cartersville pitchers combined to blank Pepperell 6-0 back on March 24. The field is slightly larger than a typical high school venue which does create larger gaps in the outfield, but Tucker says his team will adjust their outfielders accordingly and thinks playing on the field earlier in the year should make his players more comfortable.
If a third game is needed, it will be played Wednesday at a time to be determined.