Vikings look to find way to shut down HC offense

by Doug Gorman

On paper, at least, a best-of-three series between Newnan and Valdosta in the first round of the GHSA Class AAAAAA baseball playoffs is as much a showcase of younger, scrappy lineups with mirror images.

But only one will be able to survive through this weekend.

“Like most playoff series, it’s going to come down to who can start off fast,” Newnan head coach Marc Gilmore said. “They’re a lot like we are.”

The two teams begin the postseason today with a 4 p.m. doubleheader at Joe Pope Field. Game 3, if necessary, would be played at 12 p.m., on Saturday.

Both lineups are junior-heavy while reloading in 2014. Newnan returned this spring with all but one starter lost to graduation. The turnover, along with Gilmore’s promotion to head coach, resulted in a roller-coaster March before reeling off six straight Region 3-AAAAAA victories over the final week of the regular season to clinch second place and home-field advantage for the opening round.

The Cougars (14-10) started the season with a 3-8 record before winning 11 of their final 13 games of the regular season. Both losses were to 3-AAAAAA champion East Coweta including a 10-6 decision in eight innings.

“It took us a while to figure each other out,” Gilmore admitted. “It took a lot of them to adjust to the speed of the game at the varsity level. And it took a while for me to adjust to being a head coach. Our coaches did a good job of giving feedback as we tried to give everyone a chance. I feel like we’re peaking at the right time.”

It’s the first meeting in the state baseball playoffs between the two programs since 2010 when host Valdosta squeaked out a 2-1 series victory “against one of our best teams,” said Gilmore in the first round en route to reaching the state quarterfinals.

Northgate head baseball coach Greg Hamilton knows there is one big key to getting past Houston County in the best-of-three playoffs series starting at 4 p.m today with a doubleheader in Warner Robins.

The Vikings pitching staff has to find a way to keep the Bears from reaching base or hitting the long ball.

“They had seven different players hit home runs,” Hamilton said of Houston. “We had seven home runs all year.”

That means the Northgate pitching staff led by pitchers Blake Whitney, Jordan Schmits and Chad Green are going to have to find away to throw strikes.

“We have to keep their guys off the bases,” he said. “We can’t walk a lot of batters.”

Northgate comes into the postseason after a roller-coaster ride, winning some big games including a home-and-home sweep of McIntosh, but losing 15-0 to Union Grove.

Despite the loss to the Wolverines, Northgate (16-10, 15-5) finished third place in Region 4-AAAAA despite finishing with the same region as second-place Starr’s Mill, who edged out the Vikings with a head-to-head tiebreaker.

It’s Northgate’s fourth consecutive road playoff opener. Its three previous first-round series have gone to Game 3 while unable to earn the clincher against the likes of Northside-Warner Robins (2011), Pope (2012) and Hardaway last year.

Houston County (19-5, 11-2) enters the state playoffs after finishing as the No. 2 seed in Region 2-AAAAA. The Bears dropped a 6-5 decision to Greenbrier in the region championship after capturing its subregion title.

“They might be the best team out that region,” Hamilton said of an eight-team alignment that’s subdivided between Augusta-area schools and those around Macon. “We are not going to see anybody better than some of the guys on this team. Our job is to go over there and play. It is the second season and anything can happen. If we play our game we will be okay.”

Hamilton says playing in a competitive 4-AAAAA alignment where six teams battled for four playoff berths prepared the Vikings for the postseason.

“It is such a tough region, it can only make you better,” he said.

There are plenty of positives for the Vikings heading into the postseason, including fielding

“We are making less than an error a game,” Hamilton said.

Offensively, the Vikings are 35 of 38 on stolen-base attempts while getting support throughout the lineup.

James Poropatic, Andrew Burden, Armand Upshaw and clean-up hitter Chase Allen have had several multi-hit games from the top of the batting order, while Connor Wilson, Jonathan Hamilton, and Buddy Green have found a way to get on base.

A third and deciding game will be played Saturday at 1 p.m if necessary.

Longtime head coach Bart Shuman’s lineup ended up losing to eventual state champion Harrison to close that season, and the program has missed the playoffs each of the last three years before turning things around in 2014 despite having only one senior on the roster.

The Wildcats’ lone upperclassmen, senior first baseman Daniel Tefft, has done his part, however this spring on a team that includes nine juniors, three sophomores and three freshmen. The majority are returners while making a turnaround from last year’s 5-12-1 campaign.

Tefft, a Mercer University signee, entered this week batting .420 with four homers and 27 RBIs as Valdosta closed the regular season with wins in six of its last eight games including a 3-2 victory over eventual Region 1-AAAAAA champion Coffee.

Coffee (17-9), Tift County (21-4) and Valdosta (17-7) all closed the season with at least three consecutive wins.

“They’re extremely well coached. Bart’s done a great job for years down there,” Gilmore said.

Valdosta is expected to turn to junior Austin Lieupo and sophomore Seth Shuman on the mound, while Newnan has used senior lefty Tanner Snellgrove and sophomore Sawyer Steele as its No. 1 and No. 2 starters through the majority of the 3-AAAAAA schedule. Heys Rowan is equally capable of coming on early should one of the duo struggle early.

The Cougars, though, have turned things around since a 5-3 loss to Westlake in its region opener on March 19. By the time the two came around to playing again following multipe rainouts, Newnan seemed to have gotten over its early doldrums.

“Westlake’s coach said after we played them again that we were a completely different team,” said Gilmore, whose team took East Coweta to extra innings a day after being blown out 8-1 by the Indians. “We showed a lot of fight and I think that gave us some confidence.”

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