Photo: Andrew McMurtrie. Devon Bonin, from left, Brandon Stillwell, Eric Alonzo and Joe Ryan are former Mill Creek baseball players now with the Atlanta Crackers of the Sunbelt Baseball League.
NORCROSS -- The purpose of most summer wood-bat leagues for college baseball players is mainly to help individual players improve their games before returning to their respective schools in the fall.
That doesn't mean winning is not important for those players or the teams they're assigned to.
And as in any competitive atmosphere, team chemistry can be a big advantage to helping an individual team win.
The Atlanta Crackers, who play out of Norcross High School in the Sunbelt Baseball League, should have plenty of team chemistry.
That's because many of their players should be quite familiar with each other.
Exactly one-fifth of the 25 players on the Crackers' current roster are all graduates of Mill Creek High School, and there are five other players who went to nearby Gwinnett County high schools.
"I've been doing this a long time, and I can't ever remember having this many (Gwinnett kids)," Crackers manager Kevin Meistickle said before a game earlier this month. "It's an unusual thing. We'll probably take our lumps when they first come in because they're all so young. But I've got a feeling we'll finish strong as they get experience playing against college kids with a wood bat."
Meistickle's prediction has proven pretty accurate.
The Crackers did struggle early on the SBL season, but have slowly begun to improve, winning six of their last eight games heading into Wednesday night's contest with the Windward Braves to stand at 11-9 on the season.
And the Gwinnett -- and specifically, Mill Creek -- contingent has played a big role in the team's recent surge.
All five of those former Hawks -- pitchers Joe Ryan, Eric Alonzo and Brian Stillwell, shortstop Devin Bonin and outfielder Casey Parham -- graduated from Mill Creek within the last two years, with all but Ryan and Alonzo graduating this May.
Add in the one game played by another former Hawk from the Class of 2011, Jerad Curry, and it has been a virtual Mill Creek reunion this summer.
"It's cool," said Ryan, a left-handed pitcher who played one year with the rest of the Mill Creek contingent before graduating in 2008 and just completed his sophomore season at Jacksonville University. "It kind of brings me back to the high school realm. I'd gotten away from it for about three years. To be able to come back and get better at the game that I started (playing) here, it's a very surreal feeling."
And it isn't just the presence of former Mill Creek players that have contributed to the Gwinnett reunion.
Pitchers James Buckelew (Collins Hill/Belmont), Nick Jones (North Gwinnett/Chattahoochee Valley CC), Aiden McLaughlin (Peachtree Ridge/Georgia State) and Taylor Smith (Dacula/Reinhardt) and catcher Landon Anderson (Buford/Gordon College/Georgia State) all went to high schools within a 15-mile radius of Mill Creek.
Most of them played against the Mill Creek group in high school and are quite familiar with them through previous summer league teams. Some of them even carpool to games together.
That familiarity is something Bonin, who was selected to Saturday's SBL All-Star Game along with Anderson and four other Crackers, believes is slowly helping the Crackers jell as a team.
"We know (each other) and want to win for (each other)," said Bonin, a second-team All-County selection by the Daily Post this past spring who will attend Gordon College this fall, but could wind up at Georgia next year. "It's different when you don't know the people who are here."
And with that bond between them already established, Meistickle is hoping it can be enhanced even further if the local players come back to play for the Crackers each summer of their high school careers.
"I've had a lot of different teams," said Meistickle, a Suwanee resident who has managed the Crackers for nearly 30 years in the Stan Musial and Dizzy Dean Leagues and semi-professional leagues, as well as the SBL. "I've had about 10 really great teams. ... This one has definitely got a good nucleus and is putting all the pieces together. It helps if you can keep them around for two or three years. If you can, they've got a chance to be really good when it's all said and done -- once they get college experience with wood bats.
"It helps that they're all from an area where baseball's become a really good sport. There are a lot of good baseball and football players in Gwinnett County."