Parkview Faces Challenge In Defending
Pitching is Panthers' biggest question mark
The country's best high school programs tend to reload rather than rebuild and Parkview High (Lilburn, Ga.) is no exception. The Panthers won a second consecutive 5-A state title in 2012, also capturing a Baseball America National Championship in the process, and begin the 2013 season as the No. 1 team in the Baseball America/National High School Baseball Coaches Association Top 25.
Georgia added a classification this year so the Panthers now compete at the 6-A level and there are some that think they lost too much to be considered the favorites, but until a team proves otherwise, Parkview is the team to beat. Gone are Matt Olson, staff ace and center of the offense, and Jesse Foster, a righty that went 11-0, 2.02. Olson hit .407 with 11 home runs and 52 RBIs while also going 12-1, 1.64 on the mound. Losing two proven arms like Olson and Foster can be difficult for any high school team, but Parkview head coach Chan Brown is confident he has the guys that are ready to step in and keep the ride going.
"The big question mark will be pitching," he said. "With (Mac) Marshall, he's obviously a top tier guy and even though he's unproven, Jarett Freeland, he's a D-I type guy. He definitely has a chance to be a major factor. We feel good about our No. 3 and closer."
Marshall, a Georgia recruit, is one of the top lefthanders in the country for the 2014 class and he gained significant experience last year despite going 2-4, 5.10. Two of his losses came against ranked teams—Columbus (Ga.) High and Harvard-Westlake High (Studio City, Calif.) in the USA Baseball National High School Invitational. But being on a state championship team as a freshman and sophomore has given Marshall an up close look at how to compete and grind through a postseason.
"When you see how they got the job done not just last year, but the year before as well, the way they handled themselves and went about their business, it rubs off on you and helps a lot now that I have to step up and be the guys that they were," he said. "You can't really replace guys like Matt and Jesse, but every time I go out there I put my best effort on the field and hopefully get a 'W' for my team."
Looking For Support
Behind Marshall will be Jarrett Freeland, who is listed at 6-foot-6, 205 pounds and committed to Georgia. Freeland is relatively new to pitching after spending most of his career behind the plate, but scouts have always been intrigued by his arm strength and they will get a chance to see it on the mound this year. He has reportedly touched 95 with his fastball and his secondary stuff is still developing, but Brown has several others he's ready to test if Freeland doesn't settle in.
"We feel like we have six or seven arms that we can put in the No. 2 or No. 3 spot," Brown said. "And we feel like we have a kid that can come in and close it in Stan McCoy. He can come in and close for us for two innings. We're looking for our starters to give us five quality innings."
Also, Parkview proved last season that a pitching staff doesn't have to dominate with strikeouts to be successful. Only two pitchers averaged more than a strikeout per inning and they accounted for just 37 of the team's 247 innings pitched. That's where the Panthers' preparation becomes so important.
"Through the way we practice and the fundamentals we incorporate, from the baseball side, they'll be prepared physically," Brown said. "The mental side, we have to find a way to play with the edge that we played with last year and even the year before. We have seven guys back that have two rings and were contributors."
Olson, the 47th overall pick in last year's draft by the Athletics, was a huge part of the offense with twice as many RBIs as anyone else on the team. After sparking the lineup from the leadoff spot last season, outfielder Josh Hart has added some strength to his frame and will move down to the No. 3 hole to drive in runs. But don't think that's going to turn him into a power hitter. Hart intends to keep the same approach he has all along.
"My plan never changes," he said. "I'm a speed guy and gap hitter. My mentality when I'm up doesn't change. I'm just moving down in the lineup to the third hole. I have the same approach."
Outside of Hart, the Panthers have four other hitters back from last year's lineup and all hit .300 or better. Hunter Thornton (.366-3-26) is committed to Mercer and should split his time between catcher and DH while Freeland (.340-4-21), outfielder Ryan Blanton (.319-0-20; Georgia State) and third baseman Rob Youngblood (.303-3-22; Georgia) bring back significant experience. All five hitters returning to the lineup are three-year starters.
Some of the Panthers think others have written them off too early and they're ready to prove them wrong.
"We have a lot of talent on this team," Hart said. "People don't know that yet, but they'll soon find out. We have a good pitching staff. Our defense is solid and one through nine, we have a good, offensive lineup. This season is going to be pretty interesting."
Head coach Jed Hixson isn't crazy enough to look past Parkview, but his Grayson High (Loganville, Ga.) team is the favorite to give the Panthers a run for their money as the preseason No. 9 team in the country. The Rams made it to the state semifinals in 2012, losing to Brookwood High (Snellville, Ga.), but have 16 players—eight starters—back, including the best player in the country in outfielder Austin Meadows. But Grayson isn't guaranteed anything and Hixson is entering his first season as the head coach after serving the previous eight as an assistant.
"It's very exciting, but it can be a little intimidating too," he said. "The game of baseball, as you know, it's just a different sport than others. There's so many different elements of the game, the weather, field conditions, the umpire behind the plate that day. So many things that can go wrong in any game situation. Even though we do have such high expectations, it's not a given.
"We're not going to be dropped right back in the final four to start the season. We've got to work our way back there. Expectations mean nothing until you prove it."
Meadows hit .390 with four home runs and 28 RBIs last season while swiping 19 bases. Given his prowess, others will have to step up around him if opponents try to pitch around him, but by the end of March, the Rams should have a good idea of what they are made of. They will start the month by traveling to LaGrange, Ga., to participate in a tournament that gave us the Ethan Martin vs. Eric Hosmer showdown in 2008. There they will face Cullman (Ala.) High with the possibility of righthander Keegan Thompson, the No. 43 high school prospect. Then comes the gauntlet. On March 12 the Rams travel to Loganville (Ga.) High to face the preseason No. 14 team and outfielder Clint Frazier, the No. 2 high school prospect, before taking on Parkview on March 15. Then it's off to Cary, N.C., to participate in the 2013 NHSI. Grayson drew No. 3 Cathedral Catholic High (San Diego) in the first round.
"Grayson is loaded," Brown said. "They have everybody back. We look forward to playing them. We respect what they have back and they're going to be a tough team to beat.
"You have to show up that day. The team that makes the fewest errors is going to win because there's going to be two quality pitchers on the mound that are going to be high 80s to low 90s and quality lineups on both sides. It's about handling your business that day."
If both teams handle their business during throughout the season, they will be firmly in the hunt for a state, and maybe national, title.