(Franklin, GA) — The Heard County Braves varsity baseball team will take the field its season opener this Wednesday afternoon when head coach Trent Bianco and his squad host Carver-Columbus at Alford Field with a first pitch at 5:30 PM.
The 2019 version of the Braves will hope to build on the recent success of a program that has made three appearances in the Elite 8 and one appearance in the Sweet 16 over the last four years under Coach Bianco, who enters his sixth season as the Brave skipper.
The team will return the majority of its starting lineup and expectations are again high with the Braves already being ranked at No. 4 in the State of Georgia in Class AA by the Georgia Dugout Club after finishing 2018 with a ranking of No. 8.
Despite the lofty No. 4 preseason ranking, the Braves will face a strong challenge in Region 5-AA as fellow Region foes Bremen and Callaway are both ranked even higher in the poll — Bremen at No. 1 and Callaway at No. 2.
Elbert County is tabbed at No. 3 while Rockmart comes in at No. 5. Defending Champion Benedictine won’t be a worry for anyone in Class AA after being moved up to Class AAA in the offseason.
Bianco is excited to be preparing for this season.
“This time of year you are always excited — a new group and a new team — I think it’s safe to say the group last year overachieved a little bit and it was good for a lot of those sophomores we started to get a chance to see what it is like to make a run to the Elite 8,” Bianco says. “We will have a very tough schedule to get ready for region but we need that because I have no doubt this will be the toughest region since I have been here.”
Bianco has always scheduled tough non-region games which has often equated to a slow start to the season but has also been key to solid final results in both region and postseason play.
“It is tough to face these perennial playoff teams early, but I’m never going to schedule any differently,” Bianco adds. “Our guys always love the competition and the challenge but at the same time our primary goal is to get ready for that region schedule on March 5 and the better pitching we see and better line-ups our pitchers face can only help us towards our goals later in the season.”
Junior Tray Owens (Photo: Heard County Braves on Facebook)
The Braves will remain relatively young with only three seniors returning from the 2018 lineup — catcher Will Hammett, right fielder Tanner Collins, and center fielder Collin Wright.
Unfortunately, Wright suffered a serious knee injury during the Brave football season and is still recovering from surgery. He is rehabbing and working as hard as possible to get back but his best case scenario for a return to action might be mid to late March.
Hammett is still finishing out the basketball season with the Braves in the state playoffs, but freshman Chance Brown and sophomore Hayden McCosh have both show promise in early season practices and action.
The Braves scrimmaged Newnan on the road Friday and fell 13-8 on the scoreboard, but Bianco thinks it was one of the most positive scrimmages of the past several years.
One of the top returnees for the Braves will be junior third baseman and No. 1 starting pitcher Tray Owens. Owens was crucial to the Braves in all aspects during last season and Coach Bianco hopes to see more of the same from his ace starter.
Owens batted .328 with six homers and 28 RBI’s and was the team leader in ERA at 3.78 and strikeouts with 58 while notching five wins and three saves in 14 starts.
Mainstay shortstop Dale Thornhill will return to the lineup and bring some much-needed depth to the starting rotation as he looks to build on his four wins in seven starts last season with just one loss. The junior also had a solid year at the plate in 2018 batting .304 with 17 RBI’s and four steals.
Another junior Caden Raines will return to his starting slot at second base. Raines was one of the feel-good stories of 2018 after battling back from a bout with Stevens–Johnson syndrome in the fall of 2017.
Despite having to come back from the illness rather quickly to start last season, Raines put together some solid numbers as a sophomore batting .347 with five doubles, 24 RBI’s and 33 runs scored and eight stolen bases.
With the loss of starting first baseman Davey Raines to graduation, the Braves will turn to some underclassmen to fill the role in 2019.
Drew Cornelius has been effective thus far and should see a lot of time as well as McCosh and junior Mason Rollings who may also see action at third base when Owens takes the hill. Cornelius will also see time on the mound as will Collins, Hammett, Mason Rollings and Jake Harrod.
Freshman Kellon Rollings, a standout during HCMS’s Championship season last spring is also expected to be a factor both on the mound and in the outfield this season for the varsity Braves.
Senior Tanner Collins will be the top hitter returning for the Braves in right field and hopes to build on a solid 2018 campaign where he batted .378 with eight doubles and 24 RBI’s.
Several players could be vying for outfield spots with the loss of Wright for the early part of the season.
Leroy Marsh, Jake Harrod, and another freshman prospect Isaiah O’Neal will battle for time as will three new baseball players that are coming over from the gridiron. Senior Aaron Beasley and juniors Jai Wright and Kesean Johnson all tried out for the team and made the squad.
Bianco believes having some new faces on the diamond will be very positive for the program going forward.
“Competition breeds success, and it’s certainly exciting to have more interest in the baseball program — and I believe that’s a direct result of the accomplishments these guys have made on the field in recent years,” says Bianco.
Bianco will be joined in the dugout by assistant coach Matt Hornsby, pitching coach James Arp, and junior varsity coaches Gavin Porter and Tyler Spradlin.
As usual, Coach Bianco has scheduled some tough non-region match-ups to prepare his team for region play and the postseason with some especially tough Class AA match-ups during these first two weeks of the season.
Following the home opener, the Braves will travel to Vidalia this Saturday to take on the Indians (10:00 AM) and Pierce County (1:00 PM) before returning home to face Alabama power Glenwood Academy next Wednesday (5:30 PM).
The Braves will host two more top Class AA teams in Jeff Davis (11:00 AM) and Jeff Davis (3:30 PM) on Saturday, February 23 at Alford Field. Rockmart will face Jeff Davis in the second game of a tripleheader.
Other non-region games on the slate include Central (H/A), Troup County (H), Villa Rica (A), Brookstone (A), Calvary Christian (A), Harris County (A), and Handley (A).
The Region 5-AA schedule will begin on Tuesday, March 8 at home versus No. 1 ranked Bremen and will again feature the three game series format with a single game at one school on Tuesday’s followed up by a doubleheader at the other school on Friday.
The Braves will close out the region schedule home game versus No. 2 Callaway on April 9 and a road doubleheader versus the rival Cavs on April 12.