Morgan baseball opens season next week

Morgan County pitcher Hunter Lane throws a pitch during one of the Diamond Dogs’ games last season. Lane had a monster sophomore campaign, earning the Region 8-AAA pitcher of the year award.

PHOTO: Justin Hubbard

By Justin Hubbard

justin@lakeoconeenews.us

 

It was clear to anyone who followed Morgan County’s baseball team last year that the Diamond Dogs’ playoff series against Calhoun in April wasn’t up to snuff.

Morgan lost that series, two games to one, giving the Diamond Dogs a first-round exit from the state tournament after losing just six games in the regular season. Calhoun was a lower seed entering the tournament but a lack of concentration on Morgan’s part, according to several Diamond Dogs, propelled the Yellow Jackets to the upset win.

The Diamond Dogs haven’t forgotten it. The sour taste in their mouths from the blown opportunity brought a renewed focus to the team.

“In the playoffs, I think we got our mind off a little bit,” junior Jaron Ferguson said. “We were going in as a No. 1 seed facing a 4-seed and we really got our mind off of it, thinking we were the 1-seed (playing) a 4-seed and it was going to be easy. That didn't seem to be the case. They came ready to play and I guess we weren't ready to play. They brought it to us. This year, we're really going to work on focusing every game. Every game matters.”

A few players, including Hunter Lane and Hunter Christian, said they think the players simply got caught up looking ahead at a potential state championship.

They said that won’t happen again this season.

“We were all looking forward to getting a ring on our finger,” Lane said. “We are this year again, but I think we're gonna take it one series at a time and be a little bit more focused.”

That will be of paramount importance given the Diamond Dogs’ schedule. They will see the likes of Jefferson, Mary Persons and North Oconee prior to region play.

Head coach Merritt Ainslie explained his decision to schedule tougher opponents stemmed from a desire to get the players prepared for the postseason.

“I scheduled teams this year with traditionally very good pitching staffs, a lot of very good programs,” Ainslie said. “We may not win as many games this year but it's going to make us better because we're going to get our hitters ready to see postseason pitching every game we play this year.”

Grant Cofer said it will be imperative he and his teammates don’t psyche themselves out when facing those opponents.

“It gets to your head a little bit knowing you're facing 90-plus a good bit, pitching-wise,” Cofer said. “But we can't let it do that to us. We've got to just see it as another team we're going to execute against.”

Morgan will be without Dalton Cole and Dakota Young, the team’s seniors from last season. Young was a defensive rock last year and, when he missed time, the Diamond Dogs noticeably struggled a little more on defense.

Ainslie said he plans to use a rotation of catchers early on to try and find the best fit. That started this past Tuesday during the team’s preseason scrimmage against Eastside. Ainslie said the plan was to give Blake Silvey, Ethan Stamps, Domenic Arenzo and Trey Patterson time behind the plate.

Stamps said he had little experience at catcher but he’s excited for the opportunity.

“We've got a lot of options at catcher right now,” Stamps said. “We've got to find out who's best and who can fit back there with our defense on the field.”

Another position that could see a major shake-up this season is pitcher. Lane, Stamps and Cole were Morgan’s primary pitchers last year.

Ainslie said he plans to use Ferguson Patterson, Cofer and Jacob Anderson on the mound a good bit, too.

Lane and Stamps will likely be the staff’s cornerstones, though, and Ainslie said he’s excited to see what they can do given their offseason training, which he said allowed Stamps and Lane to gain strength.

Overall, the team is in better shape as the season nears. Christian said the coaches implemented more running drills during the preseason.

“We've been getting in shape,” Christian said. “We've been running a little bit. You can tell a difference. You can definitely tell.”

Several players were asked earlier this week which area the team needed to work on most and every one of them said its hitting must develop.

Ainslie said his players, who batted an impressive combined .302 last season, are so focused on their work at the plate because of lessons learned versus Calhoun.

“We work hard at hitting all different types of pitches and plate coverage, hitting the ball the opposite way,” Ainslie said. “One of the things that got us against Calhoun was we had a hard time laying off some pitches that were very uncharacteristic of us. We usually would lay off of them and they actually beat us last year on the pitching mound. Offensively, I think we'll be very similar, if not maybe a little better, than last year.”

Each player mentioned a key area that should lead to success this season, which begins for the Diamond Dogs this coming Monday at Oconee County.

Cofer said the players can’t let errors get in their heads. Lane and Christian said Morgan can’t get caught up in what could possibly happen at the end of the season, and Stamps said they need to give maximum effort every game from the first pitch to the final out.

Ferguson said his team’s season will only be successful if they make it a daily grind.

“We really need to focus in practice,” he said. “We've got to take it serious. We've got to get the reps in, hit off the tee, get your work in the cage. The effort you put in is what you're going to get out.”

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