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Norcross pitchers face challenge vs. Broncos

NORCROSS - Throughout the season, pitching has been perhaps the most consistent strength for the Norcross baseball team.

It may have to be again as the Blue Devils prepare to take on No. 1 (both statewide and nationally) Brookwood in the second round of the Class AAAAA state playoffs, beginning with a doubleheader this afternoon at 4:30 at the Dave Hunter Complex.

While Norcross' (20-8) hurlers have faced plenty of big-hitting lineups this season, it's doubtful they've faced one as stocked from top-to-bottom as Brookwood's.

The Broncos (26-2) are hitting .351 as a team with 38 combined home runs and 202 RBIs, and feature such sluggers as Jordan Erisman (.446, 13 HR, 33 RBIs), Seth Adkins (.389, 6 HR, 25 RBIs), Ronnie Freeman (.481, 4 HR, 26 RBIs) and Ross Heffley (.348, 5 HR, 25 RBIs).

"They look tough," Norcross coach Andy Collins said. "But we're going to do what we do. (Brookwood has) strengths. Our guys have strengths. We've got to pitch to our strengths and keep the ball down a little.

"You don't try to focus on a team (like Brookwood's) weaknesses when they don't have many. You focus on your strengths and try to utilize them."

The Blue Devils will try to utilize its starting rotation of Forrest Garrett, Taylor Rakes and Tyler Roach.

Garrett and Rakes were both effective during Norcross' first-round sweep of Woodstock, and hope to duplicate that success against Brookwood.

"From what we saw watching (Brookwood) in Game 3 (of the Broncos' first-round series against Alpharetta), if you can control your curveball and keep your fastball down, you'll be OK," Garrett said. "The three home runs they hit in that game - two of them came on hanging curves, and the other was a fastball up."

Both, however, are aware of the stiff challenge the Broncos pose, though neither will back down from it.

"Obviously, when you're playing a team ranked that high, they're going to be tough no matter what," said Rakes, who threw a complete game three-hitter and struck out 12 to help the Blue Devils secure the sweep over Woodstock with a 2-1 win in Game 2. "But baseball is a funny game. You never know what can happen. You've got to go in believing you can win and having confidence."

Rakes' confidence definitely got a boost with his first-round performance - his best outing in a season in which has gone 6-3 with a 4.14 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 452/3 innings.

"I've had a lot of ups and downs this season," Rakes said. "But (the Woodstock win) was a big confidence boost, especially coming in a playoff game. It's big to know you can come out and do it."

Rakes' settling down has made him a strong complement to lefties Garrett (7-2, 2.12, 62 K, 591/3 IP) and Roach (3-0, 2.17, 28 K, 29 IP).

Garrett, in particular, has been a major key for Norcross as their top starter, and knows he must give his team a strong start, especially if he gets the ball in Game 1 of today's doubleheader like he did in the first round last week.

"Setting the tone early is what we've tried to do all season," Garrett said. "We've tried to keep it so our hitters can win games without having to score double-digit runs every time out."

All three have done a good job utilizing the vastness of their home ballpark, which carries major league dimensions to all fields.

While not a small park by any means, the Dave Hunter Complex is considerably smaller than Norcross', though Rakes says it doesn't mean Blue Devils pitchers should get too caught up with trying to tailor their pitching to their surroundings.

"It just goes back to keeping the ball down and hitting your spots," Rakes said. "You've got to be smart. (The Dave Hunter Complex) is not too small, but the ball does carry well there."

SideBar: State baseball playoffs

Second round

Today's games

(all doubleheaders)

Class AAAAA

· 4 p.m. - Walton at Mill Creek

· 4:30 p.m. - Norcross at Brookwood

Class AA

· 4 p.m. - Callaway at Wesleyan

Class A

· 3:30 p.m. - Providence at Bremen

Thursday's if-necessary games

Class AAAAA

· 5 p.m. - Walton at Mill Creek

· 6 p.m. - Norcross at Brookwood

Class AA

· TBA - Callaway at Wesleyan

Class A

· 5 p.m. - Providence at Bremen