The Buford High baseball team is loaded with Division I signees, is ranked No. 8 in the country by Perfect Game, No. 1 in Class 4A by every state ranking and is the defending state champ.
However, write off Cartersville in today’s Class 4A state quarterfinal at Buford and head coach Stuart Chester would have to raise both hands to show why the Canes belong on the field with anybody.
Cartersville not only has won six state championship rings, but has an impressive streak for each round of the playoffs. The Canes have reached the quarterfinals nine seasons in a row and 19 of the last 21 years. They have reached the semifinals 10 times out of the last 17 seasons. Maybe the most remarkable stat, Cartersville has reached the state championship eight times in the last 15 years.
“I think it’s a special stat,” Chester said of the eight appearances in the state championship series since 2001. “Playoff time gets here, our guys kind of turn a little different. I think, when the competition gets better, you have more at stake and you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“I think anytime you have ‘Canes’ written across your chest, you respond pretty well.”
Chester is in his 19th year as the head baseball coach at Cartersville. Prior to that, the program had never made it to the state championship series.
“I am very proud. I’m blessed. I’m just a person that got put in this position,” Chester said. “There’s been a lot of people that have helped this program get where it is. There’s been a lot of outside community support and from the city of Cartersville. Of course, winning breeds a lot of perks, but just the way the city and the way the community and the parents back us, we just have a lot of support.”
It would have been hard to dream up Cartersville’s run of success back in 1999 when Chester was contemplating whether or not he would take over as the head baseball coach.
“I came with [former Cartersville High head football coach Frank] Barden and I was the defensive coordinator in football. I was assistant to start with and then the head coach left. Frank came to me and said, ‘You need to take the baseball job,’” Chester recalled. “I contemplated it because, at the time, being defensive coordinator and the head baseball coach, it’s a strain. And it was. At that point in time, football started in June and went do December, and baseball started in January and went to June. So there was a stretch of about seven or eight years where I was either on the baseball field or on the football field.
“Looking back, it was a good move, taking the program over.”
Chester may have left football, but football never left him.
“I’m basically a football coach coaching baseball,” he said. “I played baseball in college, but it’s just the mentality that we come with and the work ethic. We started baseball this year on Jan. 19 and we’ve only had five days off. It means we’ve put a lot of work in.”
While the six rings and numerous other deep playoff runs illustrate the success Cartersville has had since ’98, possibly the most important statistic is that 125 of Chester’s players at Cartersville went on to sign scholarships to play college baseball.
“It’s like [Atlanta Braves scouting director] Brian Bridges said when we were at a recruiting seminar and he told the parents, ‘It’s not my job to get a kid a scholarship.’ I’m here for Cartersville baseball,” Chester said. “I want our kids to go on to the next level. I want them to learn. I want their skills to advance. But I really want them to grow up and be prepared as a man and as a person to go on to college. That’s one of the factors with the schedule the way we do it. I want our players in front of scouts. I want them in front of coaches. We do the lineup and put them on the field. It’s their job to earn it.
“I think as a coach, it’s my job to open doors and that’s what I try to do. I have a lot of good relationships with coaches around the country, and it’s rewarding to see a young man leave your program and go on to the next level. I always tell them, ‘Once you leave, you may go play for Georgia or Auburn, but you’re always a Cane and you’re always representing us.’”