By Brian Paglia
As Luella baseball fans sat in the stands at the Lassiter Baseball Complex last week, they had varying expectations for how the Lions would perform against the Trojans, one of the state's most decorated programs, in the Class AAAAA quarterfinals.
But regardless of how the series would conclude (Luella was swept), every Lions fan had the same expectations for next season: With a nucleus of talented, and now experienced, sophomores, the Lions should be among the best teams in the Southern Crescent, if not the entire state, again next season.
With the baseball season in the Southern Crescent now firmly on summer hiatus, let's look at five of the top teams to watch next season.
The five seniors the Chargers will lose accomplished a lot. But ELCA's group of sophomores and juniors appear ready to accomplish more. Of the four pitchers selected first team All-Region 7-A, three were from ELCA: Juniors Cole Carrera and Corey Westover (6-0, 4.35) and sophomore Kevin Martin (3-1, 4.03).
One area coach has called Locust Grove the "team of the future." Any team returning its entire 15-man roster should get better. But the Wildcats were really good in the program's first season, missing out on the state playoffs on a tiebreaker. Juniors Seth Lucio (.423-3-27) and Jordan Dukes (.403-1-20) will anchor the lineup. Junior Dawson Brown (4-3, 1.67) will anchor the pitching staff. The Wildcats will have Eastside (22-10) and Spalding (22-7) to contend with in a new Region 4-AAA.
During the program's run to its first quarterfinals in school history, the Lions best hitter (Chase Scott) and starting pitchers (Kendall Hill, Vincent Jackson) were sophomores. When coach Andy Cooper needed someone to close out a tight game, he turned to junior Julius Gaines, a slick-fielding shortstop. Though the new Region 2-AAAAA looks like a powerhouse football region, Luella appears to be the class of the region in baseball.
Even with the loss of seven key contributors, the Mustangs should return enough to maintain the momentum built after two consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearances. Junior catcher Brad Blount (.500-6-27) will be the best hitter. Junior Cody Adkins (.375) is one of the top defensive shortstops in Class AAAA. Junior pitcher A.J. Sunstrom (8-1, 2.54) can be lights out.
The Wolfpack took a big step forward this season, making the state playoffs for the first time in the program's three years of existence. And though Woodland exited in the first round, it didn't without a fight. Junior center fielder Brandon Bryan (.392-8-34) impressed, going 5-for-9 with three home runs and nine RBIs in three games against Cairo.
Others to watch: Jonesboro, Mundy's Mill, Union Grove.