Scott Harden thought this was going to be a special season. In a region littered with deep pitching staffs, his Ridgeland Panthers, on paper at least, figured to match up well against most teams.
Two weeks into the season, Harden is scrambling to find pitching. No. 2 starter Colton Whittington tore a rotator cuff in summer ball, and two other potential starters were lost to injury and suspension. Though he has ace Alex Ridge ready to match up against anyone, the rest of the rotation is a mystery.
"Starting off, we figured to have more pitching than we've ever had," Harden said. "Colton won nine games for us last year, and you can't replace that. In this region you're going to have to have pitching."
With Georgia's prep season starting in late February, coaches have to be extra careful in how they prepare their pitchers for the season. Teams usually have several games before league play starts, but not in 7-AAA, which is playing a 22-game region schedule that started this past week. It's a scary part of the season, when coaches can be tempted to keep a pitcher in a game to earn a big early win.
Area coaches have learned to play for the long haul by using pitch counts and carefully watching their athletes.
"The first two or three starts you have to keep an eye on them," said Ringgold coach Brent Tucker, whose deep staff includes three seasoned starters heading to NCAA Division I schools. "We're playing 22 region games, and there is going to be a run at the end. You don't want your pitchers dragging.
"Each kid is different. Some we have at 60 pitches, some at 80 and some at 95. We talk to them during a game and we stress that they be very honest with us. Also, we watch the location of their pitches and see if they are losing their legs and mechanics. Those are the things that lead to arm injuries."
One of Tucker's aces, senior Colton Cross, had a no-hitter going recently against Gilmer County, but when he reached his pitch-count limit, Tucker pulled him. The Tigers, Class AAA runners-up last year, have their sights set on a title this year. Those aren't won in March.
Harden, on the other hand, has a tougher task with his depleted staff. Any more injuries and the playoffs will be a lost dream.
"We are running our pitchers more than ever," he said. "When pitchers lose their legs, that leads to injuries. We're stretching them more and doing what we can to get them back and ready to pitch in three days. Alex is in such great shape that he doesn't need much turnaround time, but we're still careful with all of them."
New Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe coach Tony Ellis has been coaching softball but away from baseball for several years. He knows one of his most important early jobs is to prepare his pitchers for the second half of the season and most of the Warriors' Region 7-AA games.
"We've actually got more pitching than I thought, even after losing our ace from last year," said Ellis, whose team lost all-star Tim Johnson to an offseason transfer. "Out of 19 players we have on varsity, 13 are pitchers. Right now, we're giving everybody a few innings in hopes that we keep them all healthy and they're ready for when it really counts."
LFO, like Ringgold and Ridgeland, has an indoor practice facility that is crucial in helping pitchers prepare in the offseason. Once the season starts, Ellis relies on pitch counts, a radar gun and his catchers to gauge a pitcher's progress during a game.
"We talk to the kids, but in my experience they're competitors and they will never say they want to come out," Ellis said. "Our catchers know when they're missing, and that's a sign they're tired and are overthrowing. The gun is good in that if a pitcher starts out throwing 85 (mph) and is at 75 in the third inning, he's tiring. Right now, for me, it's still a feeling-out process, but the main goal is to keep them healthy and get them ready."