By Brian Paglia
On February 23, at 6 p.m. that Tuesday evening, Locust Grove baseball began, and auspiciously, too. The Wildcats thumped Walnut Grove, 9-1. A summer filled with building up expectations for Locust Grove's first season of baseball aptly materialized on that day.
"The first game I thought, 'Dang, we're pretty good,'" Locust Grove junior Seth Lucio said.
The more expected came two days later, a 10-7 defeat to Luella. Then another, two days later, to Crisp County. Through the eventual four game losing streak that ensued, Locust Grove's pitching was not as crisp as that first game, its bats not as eager, its defense not as dependable.
And so Locust Grove's first varsity baseball squad learned its first lesson.
"We played well in the beginning," Locust Grove coach Stephen Phillips said.
"But the season's long and you've got to play consistent baseball all year long. You can't play it one week and lay off the next."
That four-game losing streak has been the low point thus far of Locust Grove's inaugural season. Since then, the Wildcats have been better than .500 -- they are 7-8 overall and 6-6 in Region 4-AAA -- and more formidable an opponent than is expected of first-year teams.
Phillips should know. Six years ago, he started the baseball program at Dutchtown.
The Bulldogs went 1-11 in their second season. It took four years for Dutchtown to become a playoff-caliber team.
But things appear to be developing more quickly at Locust Grove, and for one reason: pitching.
"We're ahead of the game here," Phillips said.
"We've got some pretty good arms on the mound, which as long as you've got pitching, you stay in ballgames."
Another reason is experience, a luxury most first-year programs don't enjoy, but instead must create. Locust Grove has three freshmen and five sophomores on the team, but it also has five juniors.
Lucio, a pitcher and shortstop, experienced the varsity atmosphere sparingly at Ola last season, while the Mustangs won 24 games and advanced to the second round of the state tournament.
Jordan Dukes, a 6-foot-4 third baseman and pitcher, and David Dumas, the team's leadoff hitter, played for People's Baptist Academy's GACA state championship team last season.
Their experience "helps a lot with leadership," Lucio said. "We've got a lot of chemistry."
Locust Grove hasn't been immune to all of the typical maladies that beleaguer first-year teams.
They have struggled to hit against good pitching, scoring just seven runs in six games against the top teams in Region 4-AAA.
"We've had some of our new school struggles that everyone has," Phillips said.
"They're making the adjustment of coming to the varsity level and seeing varsity pitching and good pitching day in and day out."
Despite its infancy, the Wildcats are just two games out in the loss column in the race for the fourth and final spot in the state tournament.
"That's pretty good for a first-year school," Lucio said. "We feel pretty confident. We've just got to win out and try out best."
Whatever the outcome, Phillips said he is already impressed with his team's development.
"For these guys to be playing together for the first time this year, come out and be in the mix late in the season," Phillips said, "my hat's off to them."