CALHOUN, Ga. - Deron Walraven knows the Gordon County baseball scene as well as anyone, so last year when the veteran coach took over a Sonoraville program that had known nothing but losing, he knew what he was getting into.
A former assistant coach at perennial power Calhoun and head coach at Gordon Central for three years, Walraven had seen the nearby Phoenix struggle in their first six years. However, although they never had won more than six games in a season, he saw up-and-coming talent.
On the surface, a 6-18 record in 2012 was nothing special, but seven freshmen started most games. Twelve games into this season before a game Thursday night, the Phoenix were 7-5 and squarely in the playoff hunt in the new-look Region 5-AAA.
"I knew there was a good group coming up, and I kind of just rolled them out there last year as freshmen to see what they could do," Walraven said. "It was nothing against the guys that were already there, but this program needed a clean slate, and they all came in with a great attitude and were ready to work and learn."
Last year's Phoenix lost 10 games by one or two runs, many due to youthful mistakes. Walraven knew there was a risk of his young players losing their confidence by being thrown into action that early, but instead of hanging their heads, they worked on the weaknesses.
"I'll admit it was frustrating at times, but we always knew we were going to get better," said one of those current sophomores, pitcher and first baseman Drew Wilson. "We saw that we could play with anybody. This year we've cut down on our errors and we believe we should win games."
Sonoraville already owns wins over 2012 playoff teams Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe, Coosa and Coahulla Creek, all without staff ace Thad Harris. The sophomore left-hander had thrown only four innings heading into Thursday night's start at Adairsville. Harris, Wilson (2-1, ERA under 1) and senior Thomas Worsham give the Phoenix three strong starters.
The lineup is headed by second-year players Harris (.357), cleanup hitter Griff Bryant (429, nine RBIs) and shortstop Patrick Thurman (.375, nine runs), who earned Region 7-AA first-team honors a year ago.
"It's really a confident, hard-working group," Walraven said. "We know what we can do and what we can't, so we want to do things the right way and control the things we can control. They've all put in the work during the summer and in the weight room."
But are the Phoenix willing to settle for having their first winning season, or do they have legitimate playoff hopes?
"Oh, I believe we definitely can make the playoffs," Wilson said. "It feels great to already be on the team with the most wins in school history, but we want the playoffs."
Contact Lindsey Young at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6296.