The Purple Hurricanes, Region 7-AAA’s No. 2 seed, have won three straight games, including a 15-3 victory on senior night last Friday. Coach Stuart Chester noted that all three facets of the game have come together for his team, something Cartersville will look to keep up today in a state playoff doubleheader with the visiting Warriors, the 3-seed out of Region 8-AAA.
“The last three or four games we’ve played great and then you have a week layoff. That’s my concern. It will be one week [today] from the last time we played. We’ve hit the ball, played good defense and pitched very well the last three or four games, and then that week layoff concerns me,” Chester acknowledged. “It’s a long layoff for both teams.”
The Warriors (17-8) last played Saturday in their region tournament, where they clinched the third seed with a second win in as many days over Franklin County. Though it may look like the third-best team in its region seed-wise, that doesn’t appear to be the case for Oconee County in actuality.
“From what I understand, they probably are the second-best team in the region. [Teams] were sub-divided [in their region],” Chester said of the Warriors, who played in a sub-region that produced three of the region’s four playoff teams, which includes undefeated Gainesville, the No. 2 Class AAA team in the state.
“They got good pitching and they swing the bat very well. [They] play good defense; they’re well-coached,” Chester added of Oconee County. “It’s not your typical first-round team. They will come in here and expect to win. We’re expecting nothing more than a very tough opponent. They play the game the way it’s supposed to be played and it’ll be a tough first round.”
The longtime Canes coach understands the difficulties of life in the playoffs, as do players like Michael Goss, Kendall Hawkins, Connor Justus, Zach Ross and Michael Willard. Most everyone else, however, will be getting his first real test of playoff baseball.
“That’s another reason why our out-of-region schedule is so tough [because] we want adverse situations for these guys that don’t have experience. Regardless, it’s tough to go into the playoffs and not to have experienced that,” Chester said. “If you’ve had a lot of sophomores and juniors and they experience it, your next year usually they’re more prepared and know what to expect. It’s tough playing a doubleheader in the heat and, if you were to split, [have to] come back the next day and mentally prepare for it. Experience is priceless and we don’t have that, but I think our guys are hungry so maybe that’ll compensate [for that].”
The team compensated for its lack of experience during the regular season as Cartersville reached 20 wins in 25 games — including 17-3 in the region — despite returning two starters in Justus and Ross.
“At least every year I’ve been here, we’ve had 20 wins every season,” Chester said. “That made the 16th year in a row we’ve had 20 wins or more — and it may be even more that.”
Even after losing the out on a region crown — Ringgold won it by one game after sweeping the Canes — this year’s team has lived up to the program’s regular season standards. Now, it gets to take a shot at the lofty standards of the five-time state champion’s postseason track record, which typically includes at least a berth in the state quarterfinals.
In order to make it to that stage, Cartersville has to defeat the Warriors at Richard Bell Field, which may the last home series of the season for the Canes — win or lose.
“It’s great to have a playoff series here at Richard Bell Field with our fan support,” Chester said. “It kind of reminds me of ’04 a little bit when we finished second in the region and we played [at] home the first time and traveled the next four series [to make it to the state finals], so it can be done. And we’ve played pretty well on the road, probably better than we have at home — I know we did against Ringgold.
“Dimensions may change, but still that baseball’s round, the bat’s round; [the field is] 60 feet, 6 inches, bases are 90 feet; and we just try to emphasize to our guys, we carry the atmosphere with us when we get off the bus,” he continued. “[But] you can’t look past anything. This first round’s huge. … We just have to worry about us. We get scouting reports on them, but we [have to] worry about what we do and try to stay healthy and [be] mentally prepared for a doubleheader in this heat.”
Cartersville opens its first-round series with Oconee County today at 4 p.m. A third game is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday, if necessary.