May 23, 2018

Young Braves poised for Class AA state playoffs

(Franklin, GA) — Making the state playoffs is nothing new for Coach Trent Bianco and his coaching staff after earning appearances in the postseason in all of his first five seasons with the team.

However, being in the starting line-up for a postseason series will be new for most of these Braves as they take the field for an opening round best-of-three series versus KIPP Atlanta Collegiate Warriors (6-4) at Alford Field Thursday.

The Braves (13-14, 9-3) hope that the same formula used for success in the past four seasons will once again benefit the team over the next few weeks at state and that formula involves facing stiff regular season competition.

Despite graduating a plethora of senior talent after last season including the entire starting pitching rotation, Bianco’s squad again faced some talented baseball teams in non-region play with a bigger eye on this postseason run than the regular season record.

Shortstop Dale Thornhill is one of a handful of Braves with postseason experience (Photo: Gary Jones)

The system has worked in the past with the Braves not only making the playoffs each season but advancing to the Sweet 16 three times and the Elite 8 twice.

In both Elite 8 appearances in 2015 and 2016, the Braves just missed making the final four and this team, although young, has already proven they can compete with some of the best teams in Class AA.

The Braves faced three of the top 10 teams in Class AA during the regular season and only lost to state No. 1 Thomasville by one run (7-6) at Rockmart on February 24.

Bianco feels the tough non-region slate and especially facing the higher quality pitching such as that seen in a loss at Glenwood last week will prove beneficial in the postseason.

“There’s always a bigger picture when you’re playing non-region games and I know any coach would tell you they’d rather go 27-0 than otherwise but as long as we are ready for the playoffs I feel like we’ve done our job,” says Bianco.

The Braves are heavy round one favorites versus the Atlanta City school that only played a region schedule in the fourth year of the program and with two wins would advance once again to the Sweet 16 to face either top-seeded Dade County from Region 7-AA on the road or fourth-seeded Oglethorpe County from Region 8-AA back in Franklin next week.

Round two games are slated for doubleheaders on Thursday, May 4 and “if” games on Friday, May 5.

Other teams battling for a final four berth in the Braves’ corner of the bracket include state No. 4 ranked Dodge County, Vidalia, No. 10 ranked Berrien, and Jefferson County.

Despite being heavy favorites versus the Warriors, Bianco says the Braves aren’t taking any team lightly especially during this point in the season.

“We’re not going to take anyone lightly and we will prepare the same whether we are playing KIPP, Benedictine, or GAC and whether it’s round one, two, or three,” says the fifth year Brave head coach. “It’s the same for us we just try to take care of what we can control and continue to work on the little things at practice. I feel like if we do that we can compete in any series.”

Seniors Bryan Jones, A.J. Head, and Davey Raines will look to lead the team during the postseason run and Head especially will be an important piece following an injury to starting catcher Will Hammett during a minor car accident over the weekend.

Hammett is questionable for the round one series with the Warriors. Head is not inexperienced at the position having started most of last season there and Jones will be behind the plate when Head comes on in relief on the mound.

Offensive leaders in the 2018 regular season included Jones (.403 average, 3 HR’s, 12 doubles, 27 RBI), Tanner Collins (.383 average, 8 doubles, 20 walks, 21 runs scored, 19 RBI), Caden Raines (.350 average, 23 runs scored, 22 walks, 18 RBI, and 6 steals), Tray Owens (.295 average, 4 HR’s, 19 RBI) Davey Raines (.328 average, 6 runs scored), and Will Hammett (.328 average, 14 RBI).

On the mound, it was Owens leading the way as the No. 1 starter with four wins, 51 strikeouts, three saves and an ERA of 3.46 over a team high 56.2 innings of work.

Coming off of Tommy John surgery in his sophomore season, Jones pitched well over the second half of the season earning four wins in nine starts and will be important along with Dale Thornhill who tossed 26 plus innings in six starts.

Head will be crucial as the No. 1 reliever out of the bullpen. Head pitched well during the second half of the season allowing more than one earned run just once over his last 12 appearances and could prove extra valuable due to his ability to succeed in short or longer outings when necessary.

The Brave coaching staff are a little more excited than usual this postseason given the youth and inexperience of the squad compared to year’s past.

“We may be a little more excited this year just because it’s just more of an unknown commodity. When you’re looking at year’s past with next-level guys like Kay, Brant, Wilson, Ward, Hopkins, and Alford you know what to expect but this time around only Thornhill, Jones, Collins and a couple of other guys have truly been through this before so we’ve got a bunch of guys that need this playoff experience,” adds Bianco.

“The good news is most of these guys did dress last year and were at least in the dugout getting exposure to the experience last season and I think that will help us. These games should pay dividends in experience for years to come.”

Weather permitting, the round one doubleheader versus the Warriors will begin at 4:00 PM tomorrow at Alford Field on the campus of HHS. If rained out the series would shift to Friday at 4:00 PM and the “if” game would be pushed back to Saturday. All round one games will be contested at Alford Field.

For more updates on Brave baseball and to see additional photos visit Heard County Braves baseball on Facebook.

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