Charging Ahead: GHC baseball hopes for same success with new players

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Experience is often mentioned in the same breath as leadership and chemistry when it comes to explaining why certain teams have success.

If the Georgia Highlands baseball season plays out the way coach Dash O’Neill thinks it can, nobody will be pointing to experience as the reason.

"We don't have a lot of returners," O'Neill said Wednesday afternoon, just hours before his team’s first game of the season, a 3-2 win against LaGrange College. "but the story for this year is how well our new guys can perform and adapt to college baseball.

"Our returners are solid. The guys we do have coming back are all good. They'll all contribute, but I think the freshmen will be the focal point."

Despite returning just five major contributors — one position player and four pitchers — from last year’s Region XVII tournament-winning team, O’Neill thinks his team has a legitimate chance to repeat in 2018.

"I expect more of the same," he said. "We're very talented. I expect us to continue to compete for championships and play well.

"I think we've got a great club and a lot of talent. We're just young, but my expectations are always the same. That's for us to play at the highest level that we're able to and try to win championships."

The team’s returnees include Matthew Norton and Drew Wilson. O’Neill called the pair “two of the region’s top starters.”

Norton went 7-2 with two complete games in 17 appearances (12 starts) in 2017. He allowed just two home runs over 74 2/3 innings, while posting a 1.81 ERA.

His strikeout-to-walk ratio, though, was an unimpressive 56:30. Should he improve in that area — either by limiting his walks, improving his strikeout rate of 6.75 per nine innings or both — Norton will cement his spot atop the rotation.

Wilson, who ironically also threw 74 2/3 innings, finished last year with an 8-4 record and 3.25 ERA. He went the distance in four of his 15 starts.

Like Norton, his K:BB ratio could always improve. Although Wilson led the Georgia Collegiate Athletic Association in strikeouts last year, he also gave up 30 walks on the season.

Pitchers Tyler Sellers and Jeremiah Woods, as well as outfielder Nick Piccapietra, make up the rest of the returning major contributors.

Last year, Sellers went 4-0 with three saves. He had a WHIP of exactly 1.00 to go along with a 2.45 ERA in 33 frames.

Woods, who went 1-1 in 2017, started Georgia Highlands’ season-opening 3-2 win over LaGrange College on Wednesday. He went five innings, allowing one run on two hits with four walks and four strikeouts.

As a freshman, Piccapietra hit .331 with a .417 on-base percentage. Not known for his power (just nine extra-base hits in 118 at-bats), the left-handed hitter showed great plate discipline with 12 walks and 12 strikeouts.

It’s pretty clear the team will go as far as the freshmen — two of which are from Bartow County (Woodland’s Brandon Allen and Cass’ Cody Johnson) — can take them.

O’Neill said the 2017 team’s success helped in recruiting, but he added that most members of the class were being pursued before the Chargers broke through last year.

"I always think there's a direct correlation between winning and your ability to recruit," he said. "Most of these guys were actually recruited prior to the season beginning last year, but I think people have started talking about our culture changing here. …

"I think that started to change last year when people started to see what we're all about. Having a season like that makes it better for the future, but I think my staff did a great job recruiting and getting the right guys in here, even before we had anything to show for it on the field.”

In talking before his team’s opener against NCAA Division-III LaGrange, O’Neill said Wednesday marked one of the most important days of the year.

"I'm excited,” he said. "I can't wait to see these guys get on the field. They've been working at it now for months. I think they've prepared very well. …

"Next to my kids' birthdays and Christmas, this is always the biggest day of the year for me."

Wednesday wasn’t exactly the first time the Chargers, who host Chattanooga State Community College on Friday, got to hit the field. 

The team finished 3-3 during a brief fall slate, but O’Neill knows that now is when the games really start to matter.

It’s when the talent of his players needs to outweigh the inexperience. Otherwise, Georgia Highlands could be in for a season of rebuilding — instead of reloading.

"We're well ahead of where we were last year," O'Neill said. “Last year, we were able to overcome some lackluster early performances through experience. This year, we're going to have to perform despite not having experience."