As the only non-pitching starter returning from last year's Class AAAAA baseball state championship team, Brookwood's Ronnie Freeman knew a lot of responsibility was going to be thrust upon his shoulders this spring.
And the 6-foot, 185-pound senior catcher admits there were times when the mantle of leadership that comes with such a distinction seemed a bit overwhelming.
"I knew it would be a lot different road from last year," the Daily Post's Player of the Year said. "At the beginning, I started to panic a little bit, I guess, because we were losing some games. I knew I needed to relax. That was the main thing. I just wanted to relax and have some fun."
With that mindset, plus faith in his less-experienced teammates, Freeman and the Broncos turned what was a very ordinary 7-6 start in their pre-Region 8-AAAAA schedule into another long playoff run.
Though they weren't quite able to duplicate last season's title, they did manage their third straight trip to the state semifinals, and Freeman was a major part of that surge.
He hit .396, finished in the top 10 in the county with 10 home runs and 32 RBIs, and added a solid 1.137 OPS.
More importantly, he was a rock of a leader for the Broncos, even throughout his self doubts.
"He did put a lot of pressure on himself throughout the year," Brookwood coach Rick Howard said. "He tried to carry the team, and he took (the slow start) hard because he felt like if he wasn't hitting, everyone wasn't hitting.
"But give credit to (Freeman) and (hitting) Coach (Ryan) Ledden. Together, they did a great job of assessing things and setting Ronnie straight."
As the Broncos began region play, as the less-experienced players started to get more comfortable and as the weather got warmer, Freeman's bat also began to heat up.
His two-homer night in an 11-4 win over Grayson in the first week of the region schedule ignited a string of eight wins in the next 10 games.
"When we first went through region, I think we were playing like we had nothing to lose," Freeman said. "That was a big part of it. We were relaxed and having fun. The second time (through the region schedule), I think we kind of tightened up. That didn't help us."
Indeed, Brookwood lost three key games in the second cycle of the region schedule, relegating the Broncos to the region's No. 3 playoff seed.
But once the postseason started, the Broncos once again followed Freeman's lead, winning seven straight games before being eliminated by eventual state champion Pope in the semifinals.
"When we got to the playoffs, we knew against Collins Hill we were picked to lose. (Against) Lassiter, we were picked to lose. (Against) East Coweta, we were picked to lose. All those times, we had nothing to lose. We just went for it."
The Broncos will be losing plenty with Freeman now graduated, but their loss will be Kennesaw State's gain as he is scheduled to join the Owls next season after leaving Brookwood as the school's all-time career leader in hits (122) and batting average (.424).
However, they will miss his leadership and his take charge attitude most of all, according to Howard.
"That's his personality," Howard said. "He's the kind of guy who leads by example. ... What you see is what you get with Ronnie. But what many people may not get about him is how hard he works and his passion for the game."
SideBar: All-County Baseball
Player of the year: Ronnie Freeman, Sr., Brookwood
The Kennesaw State-bound catcher helped the Broncos to another deep playoff run by hitting .396, with 10 HR and 32 RBIs
Pitcher of the year: Devin Stanton, Jr., Wesleyan
The left-hander was the Wolves' ace, going 9-2 with a 1.45 ERA and 107 strikeouts in 672/3 innings
Co-Coaches of the year: Mike Shaheen, Wesleyan/Rick Howard, Brookwood
Shaheen guided the Wolves to their second straight state championship, while Howard led the Broncos to their third straight trip to the state semifinals, with both having to replace large senior classes from the previous season
· CF Michael Adams, Sr., Collins Hill
.436, 5 HR, 18 RBIs
· 1B/RHP Nick Blount, Sr., South Gwinnett
.341, 7 HR, 20 RBIs; Also went 6-1 with 1.33 ERA
· 1B Taylor Forrester, Sr., North Gwinnett
.360, 6 HR, 32 RBIs
· OF Brandon Jacobs, Sr., Parkview
.507, 12 2B, 6 HR, 21 RBIs
· SS Kevin O'Leary, Jr., Wesleyan
.375, 12 HR, 42 RBIs
· 1B J.J. Russell, Sr., Wesleyan
.362, 7 HR, 34 RBIs
· SS Kenny Sanderson, Sr., South Gwinnett
.460, 1 HR, 8 RBIs
· 3B Patrick Savage, Sr., GAC
.464, 5 HR, 33 RBIs
· C/DH Christin Stewart, Fr., Providence
.463, 13 HR, 40 RBIs
· 3B Chris Wages, Sr., Providence
.476, 7 HR, 36 RBIs
· RF Conor Welton, Jr., Wesleyan
.404, 8 HR, 27 RBIs
· 1B/OF Austin Wheeler, Jr., Parkview
.386, 12 2B, 7 HR, 34 RBIs
· RHP Bryan Benzor, Sr., Grayson
8-2, 2.07 ERA, 63 K, 641/3 IP
· RHP/2B Michael Brown, Sr., Brookwood
3-0, 5 saves, 2.57 ERA, 18 K, 161/3 IP; .300, 4 HR, 24 RBIs
· RHP Matthew Grimes, Jr., Mill Creek
9-2, 2.18 ERA, 78 K, 702/3 IP
· LHP Sean Handlan, Sr., South Gwinnett
6-3, 1.92 ERA, 56 K, 51 IP
· RHP Jonathan Leverett, Sr., Providence
4-2, 3 saves, 1.07 ERA, 29 K, 322/3 IP
· SS Greg Brody, Jr., Mill Creek
.343, 7 HR, 10 2B, 24 RBIs
· LF Cody Getz, Sr., Buford
.490, 4 RBIs, 21 R, 8 SB
· 3B Chris Hawkins, Jr., North Gwinnett
.397, 1 HR, 18 RBIs
· CF Aaron Jividen, Sr., South Gwinnett
.369, 1 HR, 22 RBIs
· DH Brandon Kregel, Jr., Parkview
.481, 10 2B, 6 HR, 29 RBIs
· SS Danny Lockhart, Soph., Hebron
.513, 23 RBIs
· C Chris McGowan, Jr., Collins Hill
.361, 6 HR, 23 RBIs
· 2B/RHP Morgan Ownbey, Soph., Collins Hill
.373, 4 HR, 20 RBIs; 2-0, 2 saves, 2.67 ERA, 26 K
· 1B/LHP Tyler Roach, Sr., Norcross
.388, 4 HR, 28 RBIs; 3-1, 3.29 ERA, 29 K
· CF Danal Slay, Sr.,
.476, 9 RBIs, 30 R, 11 2B
· RF Phillip Tuttle, Sr.,
.391, 6 HR, 31 RBIs
· C Brett Teschner, Sr., South Gwinnett
.341, 4 HR, 31 RBIs
· LHP Austin Barry, Sr., Providence
6-2, 2.13 ERA, 56 K, 56 IP
· RHP Kevin Burgee, Soph., Hebron
5-2, 1.38 ERA, 44 K, 452/3 IP
· RHP Kevin Caldwell, Sr., South Gwinnett
5-3, 1 save, 2.06 ERA, 38 K
· LHP Cameron Hall, Sr., Brookwood
7-4, 2.75 ERA, 62 K
· RHP Zack Olson, Sr., Parkview
8-3, 2.83 ERA, 53 K, 612/3 IP