Canes enter season ranked 26th in nation

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The Cartersville baseball program graduated 14 seniors off the 2013 team and 12 seniors off the 2014 squad, but still managed to make a trip to the state finals and the semifinals each of the last two years.

Heading into this season, Cartersville will bring back much more experience as six starters, two of which were the top pitchers on last season’s roster, are back.

With much of the talent returning from a semifinal appearance a season ago, hopes are high for the Canes entering this season.

“We have some good players,” Cartersville head coach Stuart Chester said of his team’s roster. “Of course, with Elliott Anderson, he’s on the draft radar with signing with Auburn. And with Anthony [Seigler] and Devin [Warner], it’s exposure with their early commitments as sophomores with multiple offers there. You throw Carrington Evans and Parker Tidwell and some of those other seniors in there, I guess people can add things up. We’re blessed with some talent.”

The Canes, who will scrimmage at home today against Cherokee and open the regular season Feb. 24 against Lambert, were ranked. No. 26 in the nation by perfect Game Monday.

“It’s an honor to be recognized, especially by Perfect Game, who is probably one of the best recruiting, information, stat organizations in the country,” Chester said.

With the recognition by Perfect Game and three players committed to play baseball at Auburn, expectations are high, although maybe not as high as for past teams in Cartersville’s six-time state championship history.

“I know in ’04 there was a lot of pressure and hype. We had Matt Hightower that had won three in a row as a player. There was a lot of attention, a lot of recognition then, just the fact we had won the three years prior to that,” Chester said of the most highly anticipated seasons at Cartersville. “I guess ’09 would rank up there, too. We won it in ’08 and we had Donavan Tate. I can remember coming out of the locker room the first day of tryouts. We hadn’t even gotten to practice yet and there was about 20 scouts in our stands. Those two stick out in my mind as far as the hype.

“I think it’s good and it’s bad. It’s good for our program, No. 1, just that our kids can get recognition. But it kind of puts a target on your back. I tell the kids, ‘We don’t get caught up in the rankings and all that.’ Basically, rankings are a little bit of stats and previous history and opinions. I want to be ranked No. 1 in Georgia at the end of the season.”

The talent returning begins with senior Auburn signee Elliott Anderson. The 6-3, left-handed pitcher was the Region 7-AAAA Player of the Year and The Daily Tribune News Player of the Year in 2015 when he hit .404 with four home runs and 32 RBIs, while delivering on the mound with a 2.44 ERA in 63 innings with 76 strikeouts.

Anderson will combine with the Region 7-AAAA Pitcher of the Year, sophomore Auburn commit and ambidextrous pitcher, Anthony Seigler, to form a formidable 1-2 punch in the rotation. Seigler had an eventful offseason with his travel ball team and was named the MVP of the 15U Perfect Game WWBA Championship after holding a 2.12 ERA in his freshman year as a pitcher.

The rest of the pitching rotation will be decided as the season progresses, but Chester said there are multiple capable candidates, including Zach Yancey, who struck out a Buford batter in the semifinals in his lone playoff appearance.

“We have had a lot of kids step up,” Chester said of the pitching staff. “There’s a host of guys that could help there. Zach Yancey has very good arm action and throws strikes. He could be a big factor there. We’re going to pitch Carrington. We’re going to pitch Devin, Jacob Fowler. Trevor Lowe is a pitcher. We can stick him out there. Of course, you have a 6-2, 6-3 kid who can throw the ball. He’s considered there as well. Mason Barnett is a freshman, but he has a very live arm and good stuff, two pitches to go with it. ... The questions will be answered at the beginning of the season.”

Another position where there are multiple candidates to play is catcher. Elliott Berrey graduated after catching the last two seasons. Seigler will see some time behind the plate, in addition to his role on the mound and possibly in the infield.

There also will be competition at first base where junior Jacob Fowler returns after solidifying the position in the playoffs last year. Fowler will pitch and could be asked to play other positions, which means Austin Lunde and Cole Jamieson will see time after gaining experience last year.

“The good thing about Jacob is he can play all different positions. He’s an outfielder, pitcher. He’s a very good catcher. And Cole Jamieson and Austin Lunde have had time there,” Chester said of first base. “And you have a young Garrett Shelton that plays there, too. We have four good, quality guys there. Again, competition at a position seasons you and it gets you sharp.”

There is more competition at second base with last year’s starter, Seigler, moving behind the plate and pitching.

“You have three fighting it out right now,” Chester said of second base. “You have Brady Head, J.R. Evans and Noah Daniels. Brady probably has more experience from being on the team from last year. All three of them are very qualified there. It’s a battle. That position could be open for the first 10, 12 ballgames before we get to region.”

In addition to Anderson and Seigler, another Auburn commit is Warner, who returns after starting all last season at shortstop. Chester said the three second basemen are capable of playing shortstop when Warner is on the mound.

“Devin, of course, he is returning there, and he is bigger, faster, stronger,” Chester said of his shortstop. “He’s going to pitch some for us, too. So we’re going to need somebody to play that position as well. You look at the three second baseman and Anthony as well. Of course, if Anthony does play [shortstop], there’s another spot for a catcher. There’s a lot of question marks.”

At third base, the Canes will have to replace Lane Wilson, who hit .353 with a .453 on-base percentage and 30 runs scored out of the leadoff spot last year.

“It’s open,” Chester said of third base. “You have Spencer Dickey coming back. ... We have Trevor Lowe, who’s done great in the preseason and the tryouts. Both of those guys have done a great job in tryouts. You have Zach Yancey as well. He’s a good infielder. It’s just another position that we’ll have to go through the first 10, 12 games. We really won’t answer it before the time we get to region.”

In the outfield, Evans and Tidwell will bring plenty of range and will be counted on in key positions in the batting order. Evans will start in center field, and the other outfield spot is open.

“Again, that’s just another position up for battle,” Chester said of the corner outfield spot. “You have Thomas Watkins and Zach Yancey battling it out there. Not to say we don’t take one of these infielders and put them out there because the good thing about our talent right now is we have kids who play two or three positions. It’s going to come down to whoever swings the bat the best is going to end up playing. That’ll be the telltale sign in this gauntlet we got early in the season.”

That gauntlet the Canes will face in the nonregion schedule will be as competitive as ever.

“I always say that it’s the hardest schedule. I promise you, people that know baseball will back me up and say this one is — just the fact that our first three teams are probably going to be top 10 teams in 6A,” Chester said of the nonregion schedule. “That’s with Lambert, Parkview and Johns Creek. Of course, it doesn’t get any easier going into the Perfect Game tournament. We have a team out of Virginia that we open up with. They already have three Virginia commits. The No. 1 pitcher is 93, 94 [mph]. And after that, there’s no telling who it could be. You have teams from Texas, Florida, Louisiana. Those four games will be tough. We catch our breath from that and then play Mill Creek.”

Chester is hoping the tough nonregion schedule will prepare his team for another run at a state championship. To win the seventh, Cartersville will likely have to go through Buford again. Buford defeated the Canes last year in the state semifinals and went on to win the Class 4A state championship after Cartersville beat the Wolves in the semifinals the year before. Buford is ranked seventh in the country by Perfect Game.

“They graduate some guys, but their stable isn’t empty by a long shot,” Chester said of Buford. “Anytime you’re the state champion, you have to go through them to win it. Of course, I guess it’s become a pretty good rivalry between us. Props to coach [Joey] King and the football team for knocking them off in football. Maybe that sets the tempo and tone for us.”