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Posted: Thursday, March 6th 2014 at 5:52pm

Does being No. 1 have advantages? Depends who you ask

By Jeff Hart Staff
EMAIL STORY CONTACT EDITOR PRINT
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Gainesville baseball entered the season as the No. 1 ranked team in Class AAAAA.
You would think most coaches would be ecstatic about being ranked No. 1, especially with the prestige, honor, and recognition that generally comes along with it.

Not necessarily so. At least, not for two of the area’s most successful baseball programs.

Both Gainesville, in Class AAAAA, and in the nation according to some prep publications, and Buford, in Class AAA, came into the season as overwhelming selections as pre-season No. 1 teams in their respective classifications.

Gainesville coach Jeremy Kemp just shakes his head when talk of being the state’s, and even the nation’s, best high school team comes up. Buford coach Tony Wolfe has almost the same expression when his Wolves are mentioned as being among the elite teams in the state.

“We’re in a very tough region,” Kemp said. “We may not even be the best team in our region. It’s an honor to have people think we’re good enough to be ranked No. 1. The real measure is how you finish.”

“We were ranked No. 1 part of the year last year and we didn’t win our region,” Wolfe said. “Personally, I think the defending state champs should be ranked No. 1 to start the season. But, it’s always an honor to be thought of that highly.”

Wolfe said he has often wondered how people decide who should be No. 1 before anyone has even begun practice, no matter what the sport.

“There is a big difference between what people see on paper and what goes on on the field,” he said. “If that was the case, why play the games. Last year North Hall finished second in the state but I bet few thought they were one of the best two teams on paper to start the year. Rankings in high school really don’t mean much because you have to prove it on the field in the playoffs. That’s the way it should be.”

And, along with the honor and prestige, of course, comes the fact that as long as you carry the No. 1 moniker you also carry the burdens of living up to it.

“You have to worry that kids don’t get over-confident when they hear how good they are supposed to be,” Kemp said. “I think our guys have done a good job of not getting too caught up in all that.”

The Red Elephants have shown early they may be worthy of their ranking outscoring their three opponents 35-0, including an 8-0 win over North Gwinnett and Bulldogs’ Major League pitching prospect Tucker Bacha. Of course, Gainesville features Michael Gettys, considered by many scouts as the nation’s top overall prospect.

“I’m sure the fact that we have Michael is a factor. There isn’t anything he can’t do on a baseball field,” Kemp said. “But we have a lot of talent on this team. When I look at our team when it’s on the field do I see what people think is the best team in the state?

“That’s a hard thing to measure. But we don’t really worry about what others think of us. All we can control is what we do.”

Kemp said the Elephants are far from a finished product.

“We still have some position spots up for grabs and we have some pitching slots open. I think it’s way too early for people to say who is the best right now,” he said.

With the recent snow days, practice was hard to come by leading up to the start of the season. The Wolves are in much the same position as Gainesville.

“We’re still having a kind of spring training in some respects in that we have some open spots and we need to see who will fill them. Hard to do that without practice,” Wolfe said. “We have four senior position players and two of our top pitchers returning so I can see why people may think we’re one of the top teams. But again, you prove what you are on the field.”

The Wolves, who feature junior pitcher Jake Higginbotham and Georgia Tech-signee Joey Bart at catcher, opened with a solid win over Hebron Christian at Coolray Field last week and followed that with a 9-1 win over Greater Atlanta Christian Wednesday. They will get their biggest test so far taking on Class AA state-runner up from last year Wesleyan Thursday at home.

“We’ll know a lot more after (today),” Wolfe said. “Of all the playoff teams from last year (in Class AAA) we may have the most people returning so that could be why they rated us so high. But again, it only means something if you prove it on the field. There is a long way to go.”

Of course, with the season just under way, there is still a lot of baseball to be played. The recognition, however, of two northeast Georgia programs so early as among the favorites is proof enough that baseball talent in the area may once again be on the rise.

“I think there is a lot of talent in the area,” Kemp said. “You look at North Hall, us, Flowery Branch, Buford, Jefferson it’s spread around pretty good. The more success we all have the more talent it attracts. I think baseball is on the rise again.”

Wolfe, who coached Kemp in the mid-1990s on the Gainesville Travellers, said the only downfall is that some regions, including 7-AAA, play so many region games it leaves few open slots for the top programs to face off.

“We have to play 21 region games so we only have five games we can schedule and it’s hard to find common days to make that happen,” Wolfe said. “Our region isn’t quite as strong as say 8-AAAAA (which is home to Gainesville) overall and we would love to play the top teams like Gainesville or some of the other Gwinnett schools close to us.”

Kemp and Wolfe both joked about playing, or not, playing each other.

“He played for me and I don’t really enjoy playing and beating people who played for me,” Wolfe said with a chuckle. “It would be fun. But it’s a no-win situation for me, really. That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t play them if we could schedule it. That’s been the real problem.”

“I think that would be a great game,” Kemp said. “(Tony) was great to play for and any team he has had has been good. He’s a great coach. We would play them, for sure.”

In the end, does being ranked No. 1 really give teams an edge during the season?

“Hard to say,” Wolfe said. “Sometimes it can make your team not see the best pitchers because they don’t think they can beat you. Which means, you’re really seeing less pitching quality than usual. Our goal, no matter whether we’re ranked or not, is to get better each day. That’s the goal.”

“I don’t think it means much, really,” Kemp said. “Last year Loganville was considered one of the top teams in the nation and we beat them twice. You can lose on any given day to good teams if you don’t show up ready to play. We just worry about who we are playing next. That’s it.”
Associated Categories: Sports News, High School Sports

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