The Cartersville High baseball program has either won the state championship or the team that has beaten the Canes in the playoffs went on to play for the state championship in 19 of the past 20 seasons.
During that span, Cartersville has won six state titles, while the team that has beaten Cartersville in the playoffs during the other 14 seasons went on to win 10 state titles.
With Buford ranked No. 8 in the country by Perfect Game, and coming into the Class 4A state quarterfinal series as defending champs, once again loaded with talent, the odds would suggest it is likely that the winner of the series between the Wolves and Canes could eventually be crowned the state champ.
“I’d like to think that the winner of this series would be the state champion,” Cartersville head coach Stuart Chester said. “Of course, on the other side, you have a lot of great programs, a lot of good teams — Veterans, Locust Grove and you have Heritage sitting over there on the other side [of the bracket]. But I’d like to think that.”
Cartersville will travel to face Buford, beginning with a doubleheader today at 4:30 p.m. The third game of the series would be played Wednesday, if necessary, at 5:30 p.m.
Cartersville defeated Buford at Buford in three games during the 2014 Class 3A semifinals, overcoming an early deficit in Game 3 to win the game and advance to the state championship series. Last season, Buford came to Cartersville and swept the Canes by scores of 10-0 and 10-3.
“It’s really exciting,” Cartersville senior outfielder Carrington Evans said of a rematch with the Wolves. “It’s my third year playing them and, hopefully, we can do like we did in 2014 and beat them at their place this year.”
Buford has become the Cartersville athletic program’s greatest rival over the last five years. The football team lost to the Wolves in the state semifinals in 2012 and 2014 before beating them in the state championship this past season in the Georgia Dome. The basketball program’s state title hopes were dashed by Buford in the state quarterfinals in 2014. Since then, Cartersville’s volleyball team was bounced by Buford this season in the second round and the Cartersville girls tennis team was eliminated by the Lady Wolves in the Elite 8 on April 27.
Because of the rivalry and the high stakes of the series, Chester expects to see plenty of purple in the stands today at Buford.
“Anytime Cartersville and Buford get together, it just makes for a very good opportunity for people to come out and experience high school athletics at its best,” Chester said. “You can see that in football at the Dome. I just think it’s two very good schools academically. It’s two good schools athletically. When you get a couple of the top tier programs and schools ilke that, they both give a lot of student support, community support.”
In many ways, the Buford-Cartersville rivalry mirrors the Canes’ struggles with Columbus. Cartersville and Columbus met four times in the state quarterfinals (2005, ’06, ’08 ’12). All four series went to a third game with Columbus winning three of those series. However, the Canes defeated Columbus in the state championship in 2009.
“I think this third round is very important because it used to be us and Columbus, us and Columbus,” Chester said. “It was always the third round and, finally in ’09, we met up in the championship. It’s just two great school systems going head to head.”
Buford is once again loaded with talent this year. Last season’s ace, Jake Higginbotham, is now pitching for Clemson. The catcher on last season’s state championship team, Joey Bart, was drafted in the 27th round of the MLB draft like Higginbotham and is now hitting .326 while playing every day for Georgia Tech. Keyton Gibson, meanwhile, is a freshman at Georgia Tech and has become a key reliever for the Yellow Jackets.
Despite losing two key pitchers in Higginbotham and Gibson, Chester said Buford still has plenty of depth in its rotation.
“They lost a couple [of pitchers]. You lose Higginbotham, that’s a big one,” he said. “Their stable is still full, though. They have depth at every position. They have just all different types, fastballs, off-speed. They’re pretty well-rounded.”
Justin Glover is a left-handed pitcher committed to Georgia and his fastball has been clocked at 91 miles per hour by Perfect Game. Griffin Joliff is committed to Georgia Tech and has reached 90 mph on his fastball, and fellow Georgia Tech commit Austin Wilhite has hit 90 mph from the right side. Brandon Marsh is committed to Kennesaw State and also plays right field.
“What we’re doing is we’re putting the plate probably about 10 feet closer, so that pitch is coming on us more,” sophomore shortstop Devin Warner said of how the Canes are preparing for the Buford pitching staff’s high velocities. “They’re like D-I college pitchers. Their fastballs are good and then they have good off-speed pitches, so you’re just going to have to jump on the fastball and hit that.”
Glover at first base, Joliff at third, Wilhite at shortstop and twin Nick Wilhite in center field are some of the team’s top hitters for an offense that has averaged nearly 10 runs per game this season while allowing just 2.2 runs per game. The Wilhites will do much of the run scoring and use their sub 6.7-second 60 speeds to cause havoc on the basepaths and turn potential hits into outs on defense.
“They’re very good players,” Chester said of the Wilhites. “That’s the thing about Buford, too. They have power. They hit for average, but they have very good team speed, too. Controlling the run game, not letting them get on base, those are huge. We can’t make an error, can’t give them four outs an inning. If you do, you’re going to get hurt.”
The 27-3 Wolves are ranked No. 1 in the state in all of the Class 4A rankings and won Region 8-AAAA by three games over North Hall. Despite the talent on the field, senior Elliott Anderson said the Canes cannot be intimidated.
“It’s Buford. It’s a good rival, so I just want us to go in there and play our game. I just don’t want the team to go in and be shell-shocked,” he said. “I feel like things are going to be going good for us at some point in time, but we don’t need to get all geared up. There’s going to be times when things aren’t going to be going so well, and we can’t lay down. I feel like that’s what happens when teams play Buford. When Buford gets up on somebody, they kind of lay down and Buford puts it on them. That’s what happened to us last year in the fourth round. We had an error, and then a hit, ... and we just kind of dropped. We can’t do that this time.”
While Buford is loaded with high-major college prospects, the Canes have some talented players themselves and have been playing quality baseball in the state playoffs. Cartersville have swept its first two playoff opponents, Redan and Thomson, and has beaten them by an average of eight runs per game.
“I think, with all the injuries, we’re just now hitting our stride. I’m real big on a rhythm and getting some type of consistency going. When you have a change in lineup for two or three guys each game, it’s hard for them to adjust and it’s hard for us to adjust,” Chester said of Cartersville’s improved play in the playoffs. “We made a couple of moves right before playoffs started. I think everybody is adjusted. ... I think finding a spot for Trevor [Lowe, hitting .325 on the season] to get him in with his bat has helped. When Anthony [Seigler] came back, that gave us two more pitchers. And when he pitches, that gave us an opportunity to get Trevor in the game.”
Anderson is 7-for-14 in the playoffs and will take a .402 batting average this season and a six-game extra-base hit streak into Buford. Seigler, meanwhile, is 7-for-16 in the playoffs and hitting .421 on the year, while Evans is 6-for-11 and his batting average currently stands at .341.
“I feel like we’re all starting to come together as a team and we’re finally getting to where we’re playing our best baseball,” Evans said. “This is probably the best time to come together like that.”
Warner believes the outcome of this season’s series between Cartersville and Buford will have a different outcome than last year.
“This year, it’s like we’re all in. Everybody loves the program, and we’re all in it for the ring,” he said. “Definitely, everybody wants it. We’re hungry.”