THE JEFFERSON baseball stat sheet from last year certainly tells a story of dominance.
Seven Dragons batted .300 or better and four Jefferson pitchers went unbeaten with sub-2.00 ERAs as the Dragons tore through region play undefeated and advanced to the Class AA Sweet 16 in 2013.
With that level of talent returning, the defending 8-AA champions hope they’re primed for an even bigger 2014.
“I’m hoping we’re going to have a decent year,” said 11th-year head coach Tommy Knight, whose team opened the season with a 4-2 win over Oconee County Monday. “You know how that is, though. You don’t know until you start playing. But it all looks good for us as far as having a pretty successful year.”
Experience abounds as six seniors and six juniors return off last year’s 26-4 team. Most of the roster comprises either three or four-year starters, and this group is postseason battle-tested with two trips to the state playoffs under its belt.
“That’s the one thing that gives you more benefits than anything else — having been there and kind of knowing how to handle it and what it’s like,” Knight said.
Junior Jake Franklin returns as the top bat out of that talented lineup, hitting an astounding .506 last year with 36 RBIs, which Knight called “pretty dang good.” Other standout hitters include senior shortstop and University of Georgia signee Max Ford (.371, 23 RBI), senior catcher Andy Nicolaus (.352, 19 RBI), senior center fielder Hanon Price (.309, 19 RBI, 10 steals), senior second baseman Alex Gaba (.318, 20 RBI), junior outfielder Micah Carpenter (.322, 19 RBI, 11 steals) and junior infielder Trent Sorrells (.315, one home run, 16 RBI).
“All the way up and down the lineup, there’s not one guy that’s going to hit a bunch of home runs, but we’re pretty dangerous from top to bottom, I think,” Knight said.
On the mound, Ford (3-0, 0.46 ERA) and Carpenter (5-0, 0.98 ERA) are co-no. 1’s in the starting rotation after stellar seasons last year (both battled shoulder problems in 2013, however). Franklin (5-0, 1.38 ERA) and junior Ethan Garner (2-0, 1.78 ERA) provide another pair of valuable arms for the Dragon pitching staff, and the team will also call on sophomore Taylor Wilkes, Sorrells and senior Chandler Thompson (who’s back from shoulder surgery) to pitch.
Knight said last year’s second-round playoff matchup with Wesleyan provided valuable experience. To that end, Jefferson has scheduled Wesleyan and other top-notch non-region competition to prep for the state playoffs, provided that it finishes in the top four of Region 8-AA.
“We’re preparing, hopefully — if we have a good, successful region season — we’re preparing for the playoffs by playing tough teams now,” Knight said.
Jefferson’s top competition within 8-AA will come from the north side of the region. Union County is coming off a 17-8 season, while Rabun County was 17-9. Knight said both are “pretty solid teams.” Knight also expects Riverside, 11-13 a year ago, to be improved. On the south side of the region, Knight points to Oglethorpe County, which he said is a decent program year-in and year-out.
A big offseason change for the Dragons came in the weight room. After homering just three times as a team all of last year, Jefferson hit the weights extra hard in hopes of boosting those totals.
“We killed them in the weight room during the fall … We probably had about two-thirds of our guys in there,” Knight said. “We just absolutely busted it in the weight room. We’re a little bigger. We’re a little bit stronger.”
Extreme winter weather hasn’t done Jefferson or many of the teams in the state any favors in the preseason. Knight worries that his team may be a little rusty in the field in the early going. The Dragons have three games this week and two next week.
“Defensively, we haven’t gotten the work we needed to get,” Knight said. “I think we’re a good defensive team, but probably like everyone else may struggle at little bit early because we haven’t had a ton of practice out on the field.”
Around the region, eyes will certainly be on the defending region champions — especially with what the Dragons are returning this spring — but if Jefferson feels any pressure, it will only be that which is self-generated.
“I feel like the pressure we have we put on ourselves,” Knight said. “I just want our guys to enjoy the process and have fun. This is high school baseball. It’s supposed to be something you enjoy.”