State finals preview
They are separated by just four miles and when Walton visits Pope Saturday for the Class AAAAAA state championship series, a capacity crowd is expected in a series that should live up to its preseason billing. The two teams were ranked 1-2 in the preseason polls.
The first game of the best-of-three series begins with a doubleheader on Saturday at 3 p.m. The third and deciding game (if needed) would be played at 4 p.m. on Monday.
Pope coach Jeff Rowland said additional bleachers have been brought in to accommodate an overflow crowd.
“It’s going to be a neat atmosphere,” Rowland said. “Anytime you play somebody from your region (for the state championship), it’s neat. Then when they are just four miles up the road, it’s exciting.”
The Cobb County powers who both reside in Region 5 split their regular-season meetings. Pope (28-6) run-ruled the Raiders, 16-1, on March 21. But Walton got even in the rematch at Pope on April 8, overcoming an early deficit to win 10-5. Pope won the region crown, but Walton has been nationally ranked in nearly every major outlet for most of the season.
Walton (30-4) boasts an all-star offense that can score plenty of runs. The Raiders are batting .304 as a team with a lineup that includes standout outfielder Jason Rooks (.374 avg., 7 HR, 44 RBIs), shortstop/third-baseman Carter Kieboom (.366 avg., 8 2B, 36 RBIs), second baseman Parker McCoy (.358 avg., 10 2B) and Ben Spencer (.313 avg., 13 RBIs).
But not to be overlooked is the Raiders' pitching rotation that has been almost unhittable in the playoffs. Senior Zac Kristofak (9-3, 1.85 ERA) and Chris Hummel (8-0, 2.07 ERA) have been the workhorses this season.
Pope’s staple has been its vaunted pitching staff. Ryan Webb (9-1, 1.92), Matt Rowland (8-2, 1.71) and Cameron Allison (6-1, 2.53) have gotten the bulk of the innings, but the Greyhounds have multiple arms who are just as talented.
Pope catcher Mason Meadows (.411 avg., 40 RBIs) and Florida State signee Joshua Lowe (.404 avg., 9 2B, 39 RBIs) lead an offense that is hitting .328 as a team.
With so much athleticism on both sides, Walton coach Shane Amos believes the series won’t be decided by who hits or pitches the best.
“These are two very good teams,” said Amos, whose Raiders lost in the state championship series last year. “It may sound crazy, but the winner is going to be whoever makes the less mistakes.”
Class AAAAA: Loganville (28-7) at Houston County (28-8), Monday (DH), 4 p.m.
Houston County coach Jason Brett is thankful he played in the Perfect Game National Showdown Tournament in March. The Bears went 1-3 against some of the nation’s toughest competition, but Brett said it made his team better.
“The tournament exposed some of our weaknesses, and it showed us what we needed to do to get better,” said Brett, whose Bears are in the state championship series for the second time in three years.
“After that tournament, the kids kept working and getting better. We’re clicking at the right time.”
The bulk of the attention has been on Houston’s pitching rotation which has consisted of Tony Locey, DL Hall and Tanner Hall.
“We look at our pitchers as 1A, 1B and 1C,” Brett said. “We don’t look at it like a 1, 2 or a 3 … they are all equal.”
They will play host to a gritty Loganville squad that needed three games to eliminate South Effingham in the state semifinals.
The Red Devils' pitching punch of Georgia signee Timothy Elliott and Mississippi State signee Mitchell Miller have gotten most of the attention, but the Red Devil offense has been able to score plenty of runs in the postseason.
Class AAAA: Locust Grove (31-4-1) at Buford (31-3), Saturday (DH), 1 p.m.
Class AAAA fans have been anxious for a rematch between these two teams after Locust Grove handed Buford, the defending state champion, its first loss (3-0) of the season on the final day of February.
Locust Grove has made it to the championship series behind a lethal pitching staff. Ethan Lindow hasn’t allowed an earned run in his last two postseason starts. While Lindow, Christian Young and Odlanier Rodriguez get most of the attention, freshman Nolan Crisp has been lights out in the postseason.
Unlike last season when Buford won the state title behind a stingy pitching staff, the Wolves are back in the championship series behind an offense capable of putting up big numbers and a shutdown pitching staff led by Justin Glover and Griffin Jolliff.
Outfielder Brandon Marsh continues to hit better than .500, while twins Austin and Nick Wilhite have picked up from where they left off last season.
Locust Grove is making its first trip to the state championship series.
Class AAA: Westminster (28-6) at Blessed Trinity (33-2), Saturday (DH), 6:30 p.m.
A Region 4-AAA final features the Wildcats’ potent offense against Blessed Trinity’s pitching staff. In the team’s two meetings this season, Blessed Trinity outscored the Wildcats by a combined 24-4 to take the region crown.
The Titans have countered with a 1-2 pitching punch in the postseason of Hayden Lehman (10-0, 0.70 ERA) and John Michael Bertrand (9-1, 0.78). After Jackson County scored a 2-1 eighth-inning victory in Game 2 of the state semifinals, Blessed Trinity sent Peyton Glavine to the mound in Game 3. Glavine, the son of Hall of Famer Tom Glavine, didn’t disappoint to help the Titans make the championship series for the third straight season. He is 6-0 with a 0.80 ERA.
Blessed Trinity has won 14 straight postseason series dating back to the 2014 season.
Westminster is in the state championship series in what will be coach Russell Wrenn’s final series as the school's coach. Wrenn is leaving after the season to return home to Maryland.
The Wildcats, who lost in the semifinals last season, feature a trio of Division I signees on their roster -- Rankin Woley (LSU), Will Benson (Duke) and Armaan Painter (Missouri).
Class AA: Lovett (23-11-1) at Wesleyan (28-9), Saturday (one game), 4:30 p.m.
The two Region 6-AA rivals have combined to win two of the last three Class AA state titles. The defending state champion Wolves took two of three from Lovett went they met earlier this season.
Lovett ousted fellow Region 6 foe Greater Atlanta Christian in the semifinals with an extra-inning victory in Game 2, then they shut down the Spartans to win the third game of the series 4-0.
Two players to keep an eye on for Lovett are all-everything Aaron Shunk, who has signed with Georgia, and Georgetown signee Freddy Achecar.
Wesleyan needed three games to oust Holy Innocents in its semifinal round. The Wolves are searching for their first back-to-back title since winning three straight from 2008-10. Lovett won its last state title in 2013.