By Chris Goltermann
Newnan High’s baseball team will certainly have its eyes focused on Grayson heading into Wednesday’s GHSA Class 7A Elite 8 series on the road in Loganville.
Blink and the Rams could be 90-feet closer to another run scored in a year where they have swiped more than 130 bases in 36 games.
But the Cougars’ first trip to the state quarterfinals since advancing to the Class AAAAA Final Four in 2011 has an incredible journey of their own.
And while bumpier than hoped at times while coming off last year’s Region 2-7A championship, it’s been equally fulfilling for a senior class that got a chance to take the program a step further than a second-round finish in 2018.
Accountability was one method head coach Marc Gilmore continued to use to keep complacency from getting the best of a program that steamrolled through 15 straight region victories last year and then seemed to reach its peak in the first round against Roswell while taking the Hornets the distance before advancing.
By the time Newnan hosted North Paulding in the 2018 Class 7A Sweet 16, the Cougars’ energy had been spent.
“Last year, I think the first round took so much out of us because they weren’t ready,” Gilmore said.
Taken again to the full three games in this year’s opening round against North Cobb, Newnan left no doubt with a 15-2 rout in the decisive victory, then carried that momentum into a sweep over Lassiter that was fueled with a walk-off win in Game 1 on a three-run homer by sophomore shortstop Michael Maginnis.
A 23-9 season provided some survival tactics even prior to the postseason. The Cougars began the year without senior right-hander Jake Martin, who was limited for the majority of February and early March. They then had to get equally creative when lefty Jaxon O’Neal was sidelined for three weeks before returning for the regular season finale against East Coweta.
“I say this all the time. [Pitching coach] Mitch [Williams] took care of them this year. Granted they each went down for a week. But we weren’t healthy at this point last year,” Gilmore said following the second-round sweep.
Seniors Logan Hudson and Lyle Johnston gave Newnan some of the depth needed to endure, with each making an impact in the opening round against North Cobb.
It’s just one reason why the Cougars have created some confidence heading into Wednesday’s 4 p.m. doubleheader to open a best of three series, even if it’ll be Newnan’s first road trip of the season.
Grayson, at 26-10, is coming off a three-game series win over a yearly state contender in Brookwood after rolling to an undefeated record in Region 8.
“Right now we kind of feel like it doesn’t matter who we play. Those two guys are going to give us a chance,” senior center-fielder Woody Waters said of O’Neal and Martin. “[Plus] Logan and Lyle. That’s the type of thing. They’ve all done well for us.”
Pitching, however, was expected to be the constant that carried over from last year’s successes. Clutch hitting throughout the lineup, however, has become a staple so far over this year’s five playoff games.
The Cougars have averaged 9.8 hits per game with no fewer than seven so far in a postseason game. Just as important, at least seven starters have had a game with two or more hits.
“We’re starting to put together consistent at-bats and it’s a different person,” Gilmore said.
Last week’s heroes included senior Johnny Cash, who went 2-for-3 in both wins over Lassiter after getting off to a rough start in the playoffs.
Grayson provides another battle-tested opponent after needing to rally back from a 4-1 deficit in Game 2 to salvage a doubleheader split.
Brookwood had gained momentum early in the series by rallying from a 3-1 lead in Game 1 while taking advantage of a Grayson throwing error that eventually produced a bases-clearing double.
In Game 3, however, the Rams were stellar defensively is an 11-5 victory that included a diving catch in center field from Georgia football signee Josh Stinson, who leads seven players in double-digit steals this season with 28.
Sophomore left-hander Bodie Eilertson got the win after entering the second round with a 4-0 record and a 1.17 ERA. He also went the distance in a two-hit shutout in Game 3 against Lambert in the first round.
“They are extremely athletic,” said Gilmore, who saw Game 3 in person after sweeping Lassiter a day earlier. “It gets harder each round and we’re going to have to lock in and make adjustments sooner and quicker as the playoffs keep going.”
Newnan enters the quarterfinals during its most successful stretch of the year with victories in eight of its last nine games.
“It’s all starting to come together,” Waters said. “That’s why we’re still playing.”
GHSA Class 7A State Quarterfinal Matchup
Newnan (23-9) at Grayson (26-10)
Winner: Advances to play either Hillgrove (Region 3, No. 1 seed) or Mill Creek (Region 6, No. 2 seed) in the Final Four
Regular Season: Newnan won this year’s Region 2 title. Grayson finished first in Region 8.
Newnan: 1st Round vs. North Cobb (R3, 4S); W 5-1, L 7-4; W 15-2
2nd Round vs. Lassiter (R4,3S): W 4-3, W 4-0.
Grayson: 1st Round vs. Lambert (R5, 4S): W 6-2, L 8-4, W8-0
2nd Round vs. Brookwood (R7, 2S) L6-4, W7-5, W11-5
Starters: RF 4 Jett Lovett, So.; 2B 19 Thomas Collins, Jr.; SS 17 Michael Maginnis, So.; 3 3B Everett Davis, Sr.; 1 CF Woody Waters, Sr.; 13 LF Johnny Cash, Sr.; 16 1B Tucker Barnett, Sr.; 28 C Max Wilson, Sr.
Pitchers: 23 LHP Jaxon O’Neal, Sr.; 10 RHP Jake Martin, Sr.; 15 LHP Logan Hudson, Sr.; 7 RHP Lyle Johnston, Sr.
Starters: 2 OF Josh Stinson, Sr.; 21 2B Ben Scartz, Sr.; 14 John Anderson, Jr.; 7 OF Zachary Resh, Jr.; 6 SS Bradley Blalock, Sr.; 8 OF Jeremiah Smith, Sr.; 15 1B Josh Carriere, Sr.; 13 3B Kevin Ortiz, Jr.; 22 C Henry Hunter, So.
Pitchers: 14 RHP John Anderson, Jr.; 6 Bradley Blalock, Sr.; 26 LHP Bodie Eilertson, So.
What to Know: It’d be an understatement to say Grayson is active on the basepaths, adding 17 more steals to this year’s total over three games against Brookwood in the second round. Both programs also won over 20 games last year. The Rams also reached last year’s Class 7A quarterfinals before losing to Woodstock in a two-game sweep. Grayson’s baseball alumni include current Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Austin Meadows.