published Friday, March 18th, 2011

7-AAA arms race on

Strong pitching long has been a trademark of Ringgold High School baseball, but never in the long history of the perennial power has there been a staff as deep as the one coach Brent Tucker has this season.

The Tigers have one of the top staffs in the state, regardless of classification, led by future Division I players Matthew Crownover (Clemson), Colton Cross (Kennesaw State) and Corey Kafka (Mercer). Yet a staff that goes at least eight deep with that much top-tier talent is not head and shoulders above all others in Ringgold’s region.

Region 7-AAA coaches this year elected to play a home-and-home full region schedule, meaning 22 league games will decide the four postseason teams. Getting there may ride on more than just the quality of arms; depth will be key.

“In this league, it is a luxury to have three quality starters,” Tucker said. “We’re playing Monday, Thursday and Friday, so staffs are going to be tested. I haven’t seen this kind of pitching in one league in a long time. Teams usually have one strong pitcher, but there are several in 7-AAA that have two or three.

“Fortunately, we’re one of them.”

The junior Crownover is one of the state’s top pitchers after winning 12 games a year ago and allowing only eight earned runs and striking out 177 batters in 96 innings. Even more impressive was the left-hander’s total of 12 walks. Cross, a senior, had 98 strikeouts and won seven games, while Kafka, who also throws 90 mph, won three deciding game threes in the playoffs.

“Ringgold has as much pitching as I’ve seen on one team in a long time,” Dalton coach Bob Brotherton said. “You’re going to have to make them work to beat them. But they’re not alone. Several teams are really strong on the mound.”

Foremost among them is powerhouse Cartersville, the 2009 state champion and defending region champion. Though the Purple Hurricanes lost several strong seniors, they return two dominating left-handed starters in Ben Dittmer (71 strikeouts in 51 innings last year) and Sam Howard to go with up-and-coming pitchers such as Cory Collum and Drew Flatford.

League newcomer Allatoona boasts Crownover’s future Clemson teammate, junior Clate Schmidt, who already owns a 12-strikeout, two-hit win over LaFayette, and junior Lucas Brown, who was 8-0 last season.

Heritage, though off to a slow start, features two aces in Cody Sherlin and Riley Sparks. Ridgeland has lost four pitchers off a strong staff because of injury and suspension but still has future Georgia Bulldog Alex Ridge, who struck out 94 in 57 innings as a junior.

Murray County’s 6-foot-5 senior Taylor Patterson has signed to play at baseball power Darton Junior College. LaFayette has two starters that tall, John Stansell and Josh Morgan, while Dalton, though hurt on the mound through graduation, has a potential ace in junior Brandon Dale.

In other words, the arms race is on.

“Ringgold and Cartersville can match up with anybody because they each go five deep,” Ridgeland coach Scott Harden said. “Allatoona has Schmidt, who played with us on Team Georgia this year and was lights out. Those three, to me, are the top teams, and the rest of us will be fighting for that final spot.”

Considering the strength at the top, does Harden elect to use his ace Ridge against Crownover, Dittmer or Schmidt or does he save him to go against the teams he believes the Panthers will be fighting for in the playoff chase?

“We’ve got one guy we feel we can roll out against anybody,” Harden said. “We can use him against Ringgold or Cartersville, but we’ve got to win the ones we’re supposed to, so we may go with other guys against those top teams and hope for the best and save Alex for those we need to win.”

Tucker, on the other hand, is going with the college approach. As of now, Crownover will be the Monday starter, Kafka will pitch on Thursdays and Cross on Fridays. Of course, certain matchups may alter things.

“We’re pretty much set and it’s great for the kids that we can set up their starts,” Tucker said. “It also allows us to use those guys an inning here or there if we need them.”

Tucker also has the luxury of a bullpen that includes such as Adam Weldon, Mark Gray, Austin Parrish and Eric Hull.

“I’ve coached teams where those guys would be my one, two or three starters,” he said. “It’s as much quality as I’ve ever had in a bullpen, and we may need it with those 22 region games.”

about Lindsey Young...

Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...

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