Photo: Andrew McMurtrie
Buford baseball players Jake Burnette, left, and Josh Heddinger have been a big part of helping the Wolves become one of the best Class AA teams in the state. The two will remain teammates next year at Georgia Tech, but are focused now the Wolves' first state semifinal berth in five years.
BUFORD -- In reality, Jake Burnette and Josh Heddinger have only been teammates for the last two years.
However, the two Buford baseball team seniors have a history that goes back much further.
"Me and Jake have played each other (in the Greater Gwinnett Baseball League) since we were 9 years old," Heddinger said. "I played for Collins Hill, he played for Buford. So he's been here his whole life. I moved in when I was in 10th grade. Growing up, it was back and forth -- just good competitiveness."
Ever since Heddinger joined the Buford program two seasons ago, the two have shared much more in common.
They have contributed for the team both on the mound and in the infield -- though Burnette's focus remains mostly as a pitcher.
They are both headed to play college baseball at Georgia Tech's nationally-ranked program.
Most importantly for Buford fans, both Heddinger and Burnette have played a vital role in helping the Wolves (27-3) to their first Class AA state semifinal appearance since 2006.
They meet Appling on Monday for a chance to play for their first state championship since 1977.
And as Buford coach Tony Wolfe points out, their value to the team goes beyond their on-field talents.
"I think it's really important (to have) two guys that draw as much attention as they do -- pro scouts, the college thing -- for them to have such a good relationship," Wolfe said. "And they really are good friends. It goes a long way with the rest of our kids.
"You see those two guys getting along and not letting jealously creep in. I think it's really important, and it's a lot easier for the rest of them to take that same role."
Not that Burnette and Heddinger don't remain competitive with each other, though it is a lot more friendly these days.
"We'd always been rivals, so I wasn't his best friend when he moved in," Burnette said. "But once he came out here and we got on the baseball field together, we became good friends."
These days, Heddinger and Burnette like to try to one-up each other as they help the Wolves win -- something they both have done a good job with this spring.
Heddinger's contributions have come both on the mound, where he was 8-0 with a save, a 2.37 ERA and 67 strikeouts in 54 2/3 innings heading into the state quarterfinals, and at the plate, where he is hitting .391 with four home runs and 30 RBIs.
While the 6-foot-4, 215-pound right-hander's biggest strengths a year ago -- when he was named to the second team of the Daily Post's All-County team -- were primarily on the offensive side and in the field at third base, his contributions were more balanced as he helped Junior Team Georgia to the championship of the Junior Sunbelt Baseball Classic in Oklahoma last summer.
If anything, his mound work was his strong point most of this season, though his offensive numbers were solid.
But a move down to the No. 6 spot in the Wolves batting order, which includes other big bats like Tyler White, Troy Herterick, Mason Gentry and James Ritchie, has helped his offensive numbers catch up with his pitching numbers as he's hit .540 since the move late in the regular season.
"I'm just doing what coach asks me to do," Heddinger said. "If he wants me to play third, I'll play third. If he wants me to pitch, I'll pitch. ... When coach told me after (last Tuesday's quarterfinal win over Pierce County) that I was hitting .540 since moving down to the six hole, I said, 'You know, maybe there's something to this.' But really it's just me going up and hitting a lot. I've really tried to focus on it.
"When I played in the summer, most of the people I pitched against made my pitching rise to a (higher) level."
Burnette was originally slated to share the third base position with Heddinger, but he hasn't hit the way he hoped he would, though his one hit on the season was a home run.
However, his work on the mound has been everything the Wolves could've hoped for and more. Burnette entered the quarterfinals with a 6-0 record, a save, a 1.43 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 44 innings to form a loaded rotation with Heddinger and junior left-hander Sam Clay.
Those numbers come despite having the start of his season delayed for the second straight year, though for very different reasons.
A year ago, the 6-5, 185-pound right-hander was limited to just 241/3 innings after suffering a sprained ankle in the first weeks of the regular season.
This year, Burnette didn't start playing until well into March, though it was for a much better reason as he was the starting power forward on Buford's Class AA state runner-up boys basketball team.
And that experience, along with what he got with Heddinger on Team Georgia last summer, has helped make him a better leader.
"We had to work a lot to get where we got (in basketball)," Burnette said. "Just knowing what it takes to get there, all the intangible things -- the chemistry and the teamwork and everybody working it -- helps."