(Franklin, GA) — The Heard County High School varsity baseball team opened the season Tuesday at home with a 7-4 late inning defeat to the Villa Rica Wildcats from Class AAAAA.
The exciting match-up featured four lead changes and a couple of big hits by Brave seniors.
Lee Kay started on the mound for coach Trent Bianco and tossed four solid innings. Kay scattered three hits and walked three while striking out seven and allowing just one earned run.
Kay also helped himself at the plate in the first inning when he blasted a solo home run over the right field fence to give the Braves an early 1-0 lead.
Senior Auston Wilson came on in relief and pitched the last three frames.
The Wildcats tied the game at 1-1 on a solo HR by leadoff hitter Nick Corkhill in the top of the third and took a 2-1 lead in the top of the fifth.
The Braves would rally back for a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the sixth when senior outfielder Ethan Brant drove home two with a clutch base hit to right to score Dale Thornhill and Logan Ward.
Junior Brave catcher AJ Head waits for a pitch from Lee Kay during Tuesday’s opening day game versus Villa Rica
The Braves were unable to hold the lead, however, as the Wildcats stormed back with five runs in the top of the seventh.
The Braves have high expectations for the 2017 season after advancing to the Elite 8 in Class AA for the last two seasons. The Georgia Dugout Club likes the Braves chances as well and have assigned them a No. 2 state ranking in its Class AA preseason poll.
Fourth year head coach Trent Bianco is not concerned with that high ranking and considers it more a compliment to last year’s team and the program rather than his current squad.
“Preseason rankings are great but that’s just a tribute to the teams we’ve had in the past,” says Bianco. “It’s nice that people recognize the hard work our team an seniors have put in, but we’re much more concerned with the rankings at the end of the season than these that come out before.”
As he always does, Bianco has scheduled some very tough opponents for the non-region schedule which doesn’t always translate into a sexy regular season winning percentage, but does help his team to get better and prepare for the Region 5-AA schedule which will be tough in its own right.
“We have three of our 5-AA teams ranked in the top 15 of the preseason polls so we have our work cut out for us,” Bianco adds. ” Callaway is of course always strong, Lamar County is in the top 15 and Temple is always getting better. We also expect Jordan to have a much improved squad this year.”
The non-region road schedule for the braves will feature trips to Troup County (2/16), Pace Academy (2/18), Handley (2/27), Holy Ground (3/3), West Blockton, AL (3/4), Shelby County, AL (3/4), Chapel Hill (3/9), Pacelli (3/11 DH), East Coweta (3/15), Whitfield Academy (4/19), and Central (4/21).
East Coweta will be an especially strong test as they are ranked in the top 15 in Class AAAAAAA.
Additional non-region home games for 2017 include Coosa (2/20), Central (2/23), Bremen (2/28), Handley (3/7), and Whitfield Academy (3/17). The Region 5-AA schedule kicks off on March 21 at Lamar County.
The Region 5-AA schedule again includes a three game weekly series versus each opponent with a single game on Tuesday and a doubleheader on Friday.
The 2017 roster will be led by six senior Braves including three that have already signed to play at the next level. Leading the way on both the mound and at the plate will be Lee Kay. Kay missed a large portion of his junior season due to injury but hopes to stay healthy and bounce back with another strong senior season.
In Kay’s last full season as a sophomore, he hit .453 with 35 RBI, 35 runs scored, 10 doubles, three home runs, 14 walks and 11 stolen bases. On the mound he went 5-2 with a 2.50 ERA and 57 strikeouts in 53 innings while being named the Times-Georgian All-Area MVP.
Outfielder Ethan Brant hopes to build on a strong junior campaign that saw him lead the squad in homers (2) and RBI’s (36) while finishing second in batting with a .405 average. Brant is also expected to see some important innings on the mound in relief.
Senior Logan Ward is recovering from an injury but is already able to bat and was in the lead-off spot Tuesday night.
Ward batted .295 in his junior season with 31 hits, 24 RBI’s, and 25 runs scored and will also see some time on the mound.
Trey Alford returns for his senior campaign and will see time at both corner infield positions and will anchor the pitching staff along with Kay. Alford was outstanding as a starting pitcher in 2016 notching seven wins with an excellent ERA of just 2.27.
The versatile senior Austin Wilson started at third base Tuesday and will of course toss a lot of innings for the Braves. First year player senior Drew Hopkins should also prove valuable and will see action at several positions in both the infield and the outfield.
Junior AJ Head will face the task of filling the shoes of catcher Tristan Brown who graduated last season, but Bianco thinks Head is capable of handling his pitching staff after a lot of hard work in the offseason.
One of the most interesting aspects of the 2017 Braves will be the starting middle infield duo of Dale Thornhill at shortstop and Caden Raines at second base. Both have been impressive defensively to earn the starting nods. Although inexperienced a the varsity level, both guys have logged numerous travel ball starts over the last few seasons to hone their skills.
Other infielders for the Braves will include freshman Tray Owens, sophomore Tanner Collins, junior Davey Raines, and junior Brian Jones. Jones is returning from offseason Tommy John surgery and was able to pinch hit Tuesday night.
In addition to Kay and Brant, the outfield will include a rotation featuring Hopkins and sophomore Collin Wright, who both played versus the Wildcats Tuesday. Head, Collins, Thornhill, and Owens may also see time on the hill this season especially with the new GHSA pitch count rules that have taken effect.
The GHSA unanimously approved the new measure at its fall executive committee meeting last August.
Rest is a key part. If a pitcher throws 86 or more pitches, the pitcher is required to rest for three days. Pitchers throwing 61 to 85 pitches will be required to have two days of rest. Pitchers who throw 36 to 60 pitches are required to take a day of rest.
No rest would be required for pitchers throwing 35 or less pitches. However, a pitcher throwing consecutive days will have to take a day off. The rule gets more complex in the postseason where pitchers won’t be allowed to throw more than 120 pitches in a series unless weather extends the series.
A day of rest is defined as a calendar day. For example, a pitcher who reached the 110-pitch limit on a Tuesday would not be allowed to pitch again until the following Saturday.
The scenario is similar for sub-varsity games. A pitcher can throw one to 24 pitches and not have to take a day off. However, if the pitcher throws 25 to 44 pitches, he must take a day off. If he throws 45 to 64 pitches, he must take two days off. Meanwhile, if a pitcher throws 65 to 90 pitches, he must take three days off.
Under previous rules, there were no pitch counts and pitchers were limited to 10 innings per calendar day and a maximum of 14 innings in four consecutive calendar days.
The Braves travel to Troup County Thursday and Pace Academy on Saturday before returning to the home diamond next week to host Coosa on Monday and Central on Thursday.