NORCROSS - Like many other underclassmen on last year's Class AA state championship team, Kevin O'Leary knew he had to be patient. O'Leary knew he had to wait to become a big contributor on a Wesleyan baseball team that had been loaded with three- or four-year starters.
Even when that opportunity came at the beginning of this season, the junior infielder was left wondering exactly what he got himself into.
Now, however, with the Wolves getting ready to take on familiar rival Holy Innocents' in the second round of the Class A state playoffs, O'Leary has fully seized his opportunity.
"He's still learning," Wesleyan coach Mike Shaheen said. "(But) the potential is there. ... Kevin was one of the unfortunate ones (last year). He had to sit behind (Georgia Tech infielder) Connor Winn. Some of us in our lifetime have had to sit behind great players and wait for their senior year. Luckily for him, it's his junior year."
Heading into today's doubleheader, O'Leary leads a powerful Wolves lineup with nine home runs and 33 RBIs - numbers which place him in the top five in Gwinnett County.
Throw in a .363 batting average, 26 runs scored, an 1.161 on-base slugging percentage and some solid defense and the 6-foot-1, 165-pound junior had gained enough confidence to become a mainstay in the Wesleyan lineup.
"Things have started clicking for me," O'Leary said. "You've just got to get your confidence up. You walk up (to the plate) thinking nobody's going to get you out, good things are going to happen."
While some of his fellow juniors like Conor Welton, Devin Stanton and Brooks Colquitt saw playing time in last year's state title run, all this was new to O'Leary.
And it took a few games for him to adjust. The biggest adjustment was moving from his natural position at shortstop to second base, which Shaheen said he did for two main reasons.
Shaheen was doing some experimenting with his infield and wanted to take a look at other players.
But he also wanted to test O'Leary and send a message to him that he wasn't just going to inherit the starting shortstop job from the graduated Winn. He would have to earn it.
"I think he took that a little bit to heart, (but) he was frustrated by it," Shaheen said. "To some extent, that was our purpose - to challenge him. ... We let (catcher) Brent Pugh get out (to shortstop) because he'd played there over the summer.
"What we realized is, we needed Brent behind the plate. And shortstop wasn't getting a whole lot of balls hit out there. Sure enough, once we moved (O'Leary) out there, balls started going out there, and Kevin stepped up. We challenged him, and he was up to it."
O'Leary was up to it enough for Shaheen to move Pugh back behind the plate and send his first-year starter back to his natural position at short, where he has thrived ever since.
Still, O'Leary knows he has a lot to learn, especially seeing his first action under postseason pressure.
But while he readily admits that first playoff experience in Wesleyan's first-round sweep of Hebron Christian last week was an eye-opener, he also says he's a quick study and will be ready for an even more pressure-packed series against Holy Innocents'.
"We walked out there in the first inning of our first playoff game - just hearing the music (over the public address system) and seeing all the people in the stands and how many fans (Hebron) brought - it was awesome," O'Leary said. "We definitely know the (Holy Innocents') fans are going to be brutal. We just have to kind of block it out."
Head coach: Rick Howard
Region: 8-AAAAA, No. 3 seed
How they got here: Defeated Collins Hill in two games in Round 1
Second-round opponent: Lassiter, doubleheader today at 4:30 p.m.; Game 3 if necessary Thursday at 7 p.m.
Top hitters: C Ronnie Freeman (.409, 8 HR, 27 RBIs); LF Tremayne Toorie (.386, 12 RBIs); SS Wade Brogdon (.378, 2 HR, 16 RBIs); CF Trey Martin (.333, 2 HR, 18 RBIs)
Top pitchers: RHP Wes Coberly (6-0, 1.73 ERA, 31 K); LHP Matt Adams (4-3, 3.63 ERA, 59 Ks); LHP Cameron Hall (4-4, 2.64 ERA, 48 K); RHP Micah Shue (1-0, 4 saves, 0.95 ERA, 23 K); RHP Michael Brown (3-0, 3 saves, 2.47 ERA, 14 Ks)
Mill Creek Hawks
Head coach: Doug Jones
Region: 7-AAAAA, No. 4 seed
How they got here: Defeated South Gwinnett in two games in Round 1
Second-round opponent: East Paulding, doubleheader today at 4 p.m.; Game 3 if necessary Thursday, TBA
Top hitters: CF Johnny Knight (6 HR, 15 RBIs); 1B Eric Alonzo (.351, 17 RBIs); 3B Buck Fleming (.370, 10 RBIs); DH/C Jerad Curry (.342, 16 RBIs); SS Greg Brody (.341, 5 HR, 20 RBIs); C Jake German
Top pitchers: RHP Matthew Grimes (8-2, 2.12 ERA, 68 Ks); LHP Brian Holmes (4-1, 4.98 ERA, 48 K); LHP Mason Felt (3-0)
North Gwinnett Bulldogs
Head coach: Frank Vashaw
Region: 7-AAAAA, No. 3 seed
How they got here: Defeated Parkview in two games in Round 1
Second-round opponent: Pope, doubleheader today at 5 p.m.; Game 3 if necessary Thursday at 6 p.m.
Top hitters: C Josh Wright (.390, 3 HR, 19 RBIs); 1B Taylor Forrester (.345, 6 HR, 29 RBIs); DH/1B Nick Jones (.317, 6 HR, 23 RBIs); SS Chris Hawkins (.398, 1 HR, 17 RBIs); 2B J.R. Van Wie (.299, 1 HR, 9 RBIs)
Top pitchers: RHP Wyatt Brown (7-2, 3.81 ERA, 41 Ks); LHP Nick Jones (3-3, 3.15 ERA, 43 Ks); RHP Chad White (5-3, 3.66 ERA, 45 K); RHP Daniel Szathmary (2-2, 3.50 ERA, 26 K)
Providence Christian Stars
Head coach: Adam Cantrell
Region: 7-A, No. 1 seed
How they got here: Defeated Athens Academy in three games in Round 1
Second-round opponent: Landmark Christian, doubleheader today at 2 p.m.; Game 3 if necessary Thursday, TBA
Top hitters: 3B Chris Wages (.479, 6 HR, 33 RBIs, 9 SB); C/DH/OF Christin Stewart (.472, 12 HR, 37 RBIs); 1B Philip Tuttle (.405, 6 HR, 28 RBIs); OF Aaron Epp (.382, 7 HR, 29 RBIs); 2B Burke Reynolds (.392, 1 HR, 19 RBIs)
Top pitchers: LHP Austin Barry (6-1, 1.71 ERA, 52 Ks); RHP Jonathan Leverett (3-2, 3 saves, 1.35 ERA, 22 Ks); RHP Casey Gray (7-1, 2.41 ERA, 32 Ks)
Head coach: Mike Shaheen
Region: 7-A, No. 2 seed
How they got here: Defeated Hebron Christian in two games in Round 1
Second-round opponent: Holy Innocents', doubleheader today at 2 p.m.; Game 3 if necessary Thursday at 5 p.m.
Top hitters: LF Lee Ellis (.447, 3 HR, 15 RBIs, 14 SB); SS Kevin O'Leary (.363, 9 HR, 33 RBIs); RF Conor Welton (.410, 6 HR, 17 RBIs, 12 SB, 29 R); 1B J.J. Russell (.375, 4 HR, 19 RBIs); DH Carter Garrison (.381, 3 HR, 19 RBIs); C Brent Pugh (.343, 6 HR, 18 RBIs)
Top pitchers: LHP Devin Stanton (5-1, 1.79 ERA, 54 Ks); RHP Drew Fithian (2-5, 1 save, 3.47 ERA, 35 K); RHP Brooks Colquitt (3-1, 2.13 ERA, 30 K); LHP Micah Mabe (5-0, 1.48 ERA, 21 Ks)
SideBar: STATE BASEBALL
Second round of state playoffs
(Series are best 2 out of 3)
4 p.m. - Mill Creek at East Paulding (DH)
4:30 p.m. - Lassiter at Brookwood (DH)
5 p.m. - North Gwinnett at Pope (DH)
2 p.m. - Landmark at Providence (DH)
2 p.m. - Wesleyan at Holy Innocents' (DH)