Region play has begun in baseball for the state of Georgia, and a quick look at the standings brings a pause - followed by a quest to make sure the numbers are correct.
Cycles of success come and go in all sports, but some high school programs seem immune to down times.
Gordon Lee and Ringgold have been two of the most consistently successful baseball programs in the state. Though Ringgold has never won a state championship, under coaches from Bill Womack to Eric Beagles to Brent Tucker and now former player Drew Walker, annual excellence on the diamond has been a given for the Tigers.
At Gordon Lee, Mike Dunfee's Trojans have won two of the past three GHSA Class A public school championships, and they've posted more than 30 victories four times in the past nine seasons.
When region play began last week, though, the two powers were a combined 6-14 - already more losses than last year, when they combined to go 67-13 as the Trojans finished as Class A public runners-up and the Tigers were among the top four in Class AAA.
Is this slow start to the season a sign of something bigger or just an anomaly?
"I hope it's just one of those cycles," Ringgold's Walker said. "I graduated in 2008, and we've never seen a dropoff like this up north. It's rough and I'm seeing it all over the area and state, but it's worse up here for some reason right now."
Said Dunfee: "It's one of those years, and I'm having a hard time sleeping at night. I wouldn't necessarily say baseball is down. I am doing a poor job of getting these kids ready. When they win, it's all them, and when we lose, it's all on me. Whatever I'm doing, it's not working. The frustrating part is how to figure it out and get them going."
It's not just the Tigers and Trojans who have experienced slow starts. Entering Friday, only two area teams, Calhoun and Heritage, had won at least 10 games. Among area teams in 6-AAA, the largest region in northwest Georgia, only Sonoraville started league play with an overall winning mark. Of the three area 7-AA teams, only Dade County (8-7) had a winning record, with Chattooga and Gordon Central a combined 1-23.
The simplest factor in the decline in play is attrition. The 2021 season featured a stellar class of seniors in northwest Georgia, with nine of them making the prestigious Times Free Press Best of Preps all-star team. Ringgold lost eight seniors, including all-stars Chase Ghormley and Kenyon Ransom, while Gordon Lee lost seven senior starters, including all-stars Brody Cobb, Cade Peterson and Jake Poindexter.
However, as Walker points out, having to replace stars is nothing new.
"Losing those guys contributed to it, but that happens every year," said Walker, whose team has also had to play several games without senior Mason Parker and junior Ross Norman due to injuries. "We lost Andre Tarver, Daulton Schley and all those guys before that, but the next group took us to the semifinals last year.
"I look around and I don't see that next group yet, but I know the work ethic is still the same. We're just going to have to work a bit harder to get there."
Dunfee took a broader perspective. He believes today's prep athletes are having a difficult time overcoming adversity and maintaining focus.
"First off, I'm old school, but what I see is there are too many distractions for these kids and everything is centered around social media," the coach said. "Life is a struggle, and social media doesn't show it. All those kids just want to show the good stuff, and life isn't like that.
"These kids are sensitive to everything, and it's hard to reach them. Their mommas need to quit babying them. I get it as a parent myself, but you have to let them grow up."
Frustration aside, the two venerable programs may not be finished yet. Ringgold won four of its first five Region 6-AAA games and Gordon Lee swept its first Region 6-A public series.
"It's been a struggle, but we can see things starting to click a bit," Walker said. "These are the games that really count, and if we can find some consistency, this season can still be a success.
"I know one thing: We won't stop working to be the best."