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HAMMOCK: Champitto returns Duluth to glory days

Photo by Brandon Brigman

Photo by Brandon Brigman

As a young reporter back in 1997, one of my early assignments was to report on a high school baseball game involving Duluth. It was my ninth day on the job, so I got a briefing on the Wildcats before I left.

What I was told about them was true. The quality of baseball was high under coach Lou Llerandi, not surprising for a program that was a state runner-up in 1995. There was talent on the field -- one was future big-leaguer Nick Green, then a Duluth senior. I got to see Llerandi's team a few more times that season, and my opinion didn't change.

In short, Duluth had one of the best baseball programs around.

I assumed it would be that way for years, only to watch the program spend the majority of the next 13 years in mediocrity or worse. The Wildcats produced the most accomplished baseball player in Gwinnett history in Braves all-star catcher Brian McCann, but very few quality teams. McCann never even competed in a state playoff game.

Now that has changed. Duluth baseball is back to its winning ways.

The Wildcats not only qualified for the Class AAAAA state playoffs this season, they did it as a No. 2 seed in Region 7-AAAAA, one of the state's toughest regions. They get a rare home baseball series this weekend against Wheeler, a reward for their return to prominence.

It's mostly nice to see this season's success for Duluth's upperclassmen, who took their lumps as freshman and sophomore starters a few seasons ago. They won five games back in 2009, a season that included their head coach being relieved of his duties after the eighth game.

On May 1, 2009, the program's course began to change.

That's when the Duluth administration announced Matt Champitto as its new baseball coach. Young and energetic, Champitto was active in USA Baseball and fielded very competitive teams in five years as the head coach of his alma mater, Shiloh.

He made great strides in his first season at Duluth, setting up a breakout 2011 season. The playoffs have yet to begin and Champitto is on everybody's list of coach of the year favorites. He's got Duluth baseball back where it belongs.

It's just like 1997 -- except I'm not exactly a young reporter anymore.

Will Hammock can be reached via email at will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Thursdays. For archived columns, visit www.gwinnettdailypost.com/willhammock.