Photo by Brian Paglia / ELCA freshman Cole Ganopulos started Game 2 with a chance to clinch the state title but didn't buckle under the pressure. He pitched a complete game and allowed five hits, three walks and one earned run.
Exactly as planned, right? Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy went virtually wire-to-wire as the No. 1 ranked team by Gasports.com. The Chargers and won their second straight Region 5-A championship and defeated Mount Paran, 5-1 and 4-1, in the Class A private school finals to cap a 30-3 season and win their second state title in school history.
What went right
It’s a tired cliche in sports that a lot has to go right in order to win a championship. For ELCA, two things stand out.
First, there was Dalton Etheridge. The junior right-handed pitcher unexpectedly seized the void left by the graduation of ace Kevin Martin, last season’s Henry Daily Herald Pitcher of the Year. Etheridge was virtually flawless, going 12-0 with 92 strikeouts in 66 1/3 innings and a 1.49 earned-run average.
Second, there was the state tournament bracket. When the Georgia High School Association split the Class A playoffs into public and private, it seeded teams using a points system. Despite being ranked No. 1 in the polls, ELCA was seeded No. 3 in the tournament. The Chargers appealed and got bumped to No. 1, meaning it got home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Needs to improve
If there’s something to nit-pick with a state champion, it might be that ELCA had trouble finding a consistent No. 2 starter. The Chargers at various times during the regular season went with Matthew Hammers and Patrick Busscher. That switched to Joshua Smith in the post-season. Even freshman Cole Ganopulos made two starts in the playoffs, including in the decisive Game 2 in the state finals.
Sure, ELCA coach Doug Campbell would’ve liked to have more stability in the No. 2 starter’s role behind Etheridge, but Chargers pitchers not named Etheridge still went 18-3. Campbell and the Chargers obviously figured it out.
Chances next season
There are a few obvious holes to fill, most glaringingly at second base and right field. D.J. Curl and Jacob Heyward were vocal leaders and big producers as the team’s Nos. 2 and 3 hitters. Third base will be open, too, with the graduation of Patrick Busscher, who was also a dependable pitcher. And ELCA will have to replace two-year starting catcher Cameron Ragsdale.
But there’s too much talent returning to start getting concerned. Center fielder Dazmon Cameron, who is already predicted by some scouting experts to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft, will still be just a junior and Campbell said players often make the biggest jump during their junior or senior seasons. The new senior core will be returning starters Dalton Etheridge, Andrew Gomez, Matthew Hammers and Jordan Howard. They know how to win. There’s also promising young talent in pitcher Cole Ganopulos and infielder Jaylen Smith.