Baseball

GABRIEL STOVALL: Lack of championships shouldn’t hold Whitewater back from elite talk

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Gabriel Stovall

Gabriel Stovall

Whitewater senior Ethan Gillis says the close losses in the past have put a hunger inside his team for a championship. (PHOTOS: Michael Clifton | kombatkamera.com

Whitewater senior Ethan Gillis says the close losses in the past have put a hunger inside his team for a championship. (PHOTOS: Michael Clifton | kombatkamera.com)

High School Baseball Playoffs

Whitewater senior Brandon Bell is one of the team’s top sluggers. He said his team is focused on righting the wrongs of past season near-misses. (PHOTO: Michael Clifton | kombatkamera.com)

 

FAYETTEVILLE, Ga. — Whitewater is the best baseball team in Georgia right now, specifically in class AAAA.

What’s that? No shock value? Ok. How’s this: Whitewater is one of the best high school baseball teams in the nation.

There, I said it. I said what seemingly no one else outside of Georgia — or maybe even Fayette County — is willing to say. Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the Rodney Dangerfields of high school baseball. No matter what they do, or who they beat, or how well they compete they still can’t get any respect.

And it’s all, at least in my two-cents worth estimation, because of one word, or lack thereof — championships.

Yeah, I hear what you’re saying. I already know.

“Come on, Stovall. You’re being a homer. You just haven’t seen enough teams play. You’re just trying to ingratiate the Fayette County fan base.”

Well, as much as I’d love an influx of Fayette County readers, I must say that is not my aim. And, you’re right. I haven’t seen a ton of the teams in the nation play. Guilty as charged.

But it is my sneaky suspicion that the same charge could and should be laid upon those who have spurned Whitewater.

Last I checked, the Wildcats’ (14-3, 7-0) highest ranking was No. 40 out of 50 teams. That was from Perfectgame.org. Maxpreps has coach Rusty Bennett’s bunch at No. 41. But here’s the crazy part: It took the Wildcats to have to go and split four games against some of the best high school squads in the country at the National High School Baseball Invitational in Cary, NC a couple of weeks ago to even get them in the door.

Why is that crazy? Because the team that Whitewater defeated 2-1 just days after a narrow 1-0 loss to Buford (currently ranked No.7 by perfectgame.org) was Farragut (Tenn.). Farragut was No. 19 in the nation at the time and somehow moved up to No. 12 even after the loss to the Wildcats.

Whitewater was ranked No. 0 (as far as top 50 goes) when they beat them, and remained such after winning the game.

And somehow, even though the Wildcats have proven that such a win wasn’t a fluke, Farragut still hangs out in the top 20 — Maxpreps has them ranked No. 12 — while Whitewater can still feel the draft on their backsides as they just managed to squeeze through the back door of the rankings.

Now I’m not one of those who things that when you beat a higher ranked team you should swap for their record. Nor am I irrational enough to say that Whitewater should automatically be ranked top five just because I’ve seen them play more than others.

To be sure, there’s tons of elite, national-level baseball talent right here in our own Georgia backyards, starting up north in Forsyth County where my good buddy, former co-worker and fellow sports editor Brian Paglia gets the privilege of covering one of the nation’s best in No. 15 Lambert (according to perfectgame.org).

Then of course you’ve got teams like third-ranked Parkview out of Lilburn and No. 13 Kennesaw Mountain.

But to think that Whitewater doesn’t deserve a ranking better than 40 is preposterous.

Check the resume: We’ve already discussed the 1-0 pitcher’s dual loss to No. 7 Buford, followed by the win over Farragut. But then you go to Cary and beat DeSoto (ranked No. 38), Trinity Prep and give up a winnable game to No. 22 Mosley (Lynn Haven, Fla.) — Whitewater pitcher Jake Lee took to Twitter after that 4-2 loss and declared that the game wasn’t won by Mosley as much as it was lost by Whitewater, and I agree — before losing in fairly decisive fashion to Huntington Beach (Calif.)

When you tabulate it, that’s a 3-3 mark against mostly top 25 teams in the nation, which is a couple of ball bounces away from 5-1. Despite that, every team that you’ve either beaten or closely hung with is still ranked ahead of you — far ahead.

What gives?

I’ll tell you what gives. It’s back to that “C” word we talked about earlier. The championship stigma. Whitewater has been close — frustratingly close — to getting over that hump stretching back to the double heartache that was Marist in the 2009 and 2011 season state finals.

Then back-to-back semifinal losses to Greenbrier in the 2012 and 2013 seasons, and of course after finally getting past Greenbrier to make the title series again, Houston County trips them up in a close fought three-game series.

The heartache is real. And so is the unfortunate perception that, because Whitewater has whiffed — albeit barely — over the last five or six years on the state’s biggest stage, their validity as one of the nation’s best has been blocked because they couldn’t quite lay claim to the title of Georgia’s best.

Whitewater is the baseball equivalent to Forest Park girls basketball. The Lady Panthers have made the state title game, Final Four or Elite Eight in each of coach Steven Cole’s six years at the helm, but have yet to crack the code on a crown.

They are seen as one of the most solid basketball programs in the state. They’ve proven time and time again that they can play with and beat anybody in the state on any given night — except championship night.

And that’s where Whitewater is. Highly respected (to a point). Greatly revered, but still a trophy short of being granted the elite status it deserves. It’s unfortunately likely that if another team rose up this year as a flash in the pan to win a state title over the Wildcats, that team would probably be more apt to get into to “national relevance” conversations than a consistently good Whitewater.

That’s just the weight people put on winning championships.

To solidify the point, I draw another comparison to another Southern Crescent hoops team. Jonesboro boys. They’re the media darlings now. Georgia’s newest, fashionable basketball favorites. Why? Well, it’s definitely not because of the previous 12 years of winning basketball, region championships and state tournament berths that the school enjoyed prior to winning back-to-back Class AAAA titles in 2013-14 and 2014-15.

As talented as coach Dan Maehlman’s teams have been over the years, nobody remembered or talked about the squads that came before these most recent two. Only that they’ve been good but not great.

Lovejoy football has a similar stigma after dropping back-to-back state championship games. Stockbridge football in Henry County is trying to overcome that same hump. Meanwhile, other teams like McIntosh soccer or ELCA or Sandy Creek or Griffin in football can stand a few subpar seasons without much thought of losing their elite status because of the titles they’ve won in the past.

I don’t think it’s an entirely fair stigma — that if you can’t win the last one you’re somehow not as elite as other programs, many you’ve proven you can beat in other parts of the season consistently, just because those other teams have been fortunate enough to win a title or two before.

Sometimes, as earlier stated, a team just rises up in the right year and falls into the right set of circumstances, and they get the elite crown bestowed upon them. But that’s the way the game is played.

Whitewater can run the table on the rest of this season. Jake Lee, Ethan Gillis, Colby Taylor and that whole pitching staff can throw no-hitters for the rest of the year, and Brandon Bell and Jabari Richards can knock home runs until they split their bats, but unless that last game played is a victory then Whitewater will continue to be seen as a second tier team.

It isn’t right. They’ve proven that they belong. I don’t think people really realize the amount of flat out luck it takes — in addition to your talent — to win one championship, let alone multiple. So for that to be the predominant measure used to quantify eliteness, I’m not sure I agree.

But one thing I do know just from hearing the Wildcat players talk about it. The near misses have made them hungry. Thirsty even. And I’ve covered sports long enough to know what happens when you poor championship hunger and thirst over elite, championship level talent.

That’s right. Championships trophies.

Whitewater is arguably just as talented as it has been over the last few years. But they’ve probably never been hungrier. And that bodes well for them as we approach the home stretch of the season.

The door separating Whitewater and elite status has been shut on this Fayette County baseball power for a long time. But the knocks are getting louder. Heavier. More forceful.

And I’m not sure those hinges will hold up for another year.

Gabriel Stovall is the editor of thecrescentbuzz.com. He can be reached at gstovall@thecrescentbuzz.com. On Twitter? Follow him @GabrielStovall1, and follow our page @crescent_buzz.

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