Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Lanier High School sophomores catcher T.J. Richardson (16), pitcher Matthew Ramsay (14), pitcher/DH Kameron Doster (9) and pitcher/third baseman Trenton Little (12) have made large contributions to the success of Lanier's baseball program this year. Lanier High School baseball program in Sugar Hill has made serious improvements in the second year of the schools existence.
SUGAR HILL -- Last year's inaugural season was a brutal introduction to varsity baseball for Lanier High School's fledgling program.
Of course, playing a full varsity schedule in Region 8-AAA right out of the gate, coach Chad Longe knew this would likely be the case.
While most coaches in his situation would be modest in their expectations for Year 2, Longe has set the bar considerably higher.
So far, the Longhorns have cleared that high bar, racing out to a 10-7 mark overall and 8-5 in region play heading into what has become an important game this afternoon at Oconee County -- one in which second place in the region's B division is on the line.
It's a major step forward for a team in only its second season of existence following a 4-21 season in last year's inaugural campaign, a season in which Longe believes many important lessons were learned.
"Well, I definitely think having our younger players play in a full region schedule last year, we took our lumps," Longe said. "This year, the fact we had more experience -- we do have older players, we have seven seniors -- we're in games.
"We've played close games. We've learned how to win close games, and we've learned how to accept defeat in close games. ... We've figured out what we can do as a team -- how we can really push ourselves to really compete against the better teams in our region."
The Longhorns have proven they can do both, having already beaten Oconee County once this season and pushed teams like region leader and No. 2 state-ranked Gainesville and Stephens County to the limit, plus posting a 5-2 record in one-run games.
And while they do feature seven seniors on the roster, the Longhorns have gotten perhaps their biggest boost from a nucleus of four sophomores -- catcher T.J. Richardson and pitchers Kameron Doster, Trent Little and Matt Ramsay -- who have grown up fast after enduring those tough lessons learned as freshmen last year.
"I think that was probably one of the reasons we struggled more last year than we did last year," said Doster, who has posted a team best 1.75 ERA to go along with a 1-3 record, a save and 39 strikeouts over 36 innings in eight appearances this season. "People had to adjust and grow up quicker than at other places.
"(There are) more (team) leaders (this season). People are stepping up and taking charge and working for the better of the team. There's not as much individualism."
Indeed, the chemistry between pitchers like Doster, Little (3-1, 3.23 ERA, 17 K, 26 IP) and Ramsay (3-2, 3.35 ERA, 26 K, 31 IP) and Richardson has mirrored that of the entire team, and it's been a big factor in Lanier's second-year surge.
Part of it was Richardson being able to adjust to the responsibility of not only handling the multiple responsibilities that come with being in his position.
Like a lot of his teammates, the 5-foot-10, 170-pound sophomore found it hard to juggle getting to know his pitchers and being the team's on-field defensive leader, as well as one of its top hitters.
"It's much easier this year," said Richardson, who leads Lanier with a .436 average a home run and 18 RBIs in 55 at bats this season. "Having to catch some (pitchers) I've never caught before last year, and I didn't really get a chance to catch bullpen (sessions) because there were so many of them trying to pitch, that was the biggest problem -- not knowing what they're going to throw and how (those pitches) are going to move.
"My teammates helping me out (and) starting to get to know what (the pitchers) throw (helped slow the game down). Everybody backing me up in the field and making plays. It was a team effort. Everybody was helping each other out."
But while maturity and team chemistry have been big keys for the young Longhorns' turnaround, the confidence Longe alluded to may be perhaps the most important.
And the two biggest games that helped build that confidence may be Lanier's season series with Subregion B rival Johnson-Gainesville.
The Longhorns pulled out a 2-1, extra-inning win over the Knights on Austin Gaskins' two-out, RBI single in the ninth inning on March 12, and then rallied from 10-6 down in the sixth inning to score 12 unanswered runs behind the bats of Austin Wood, Michael Diaz and Richardson on April 4, with clutch relief pitching from Shohn Tanner in both games.
"Everybody just kept fighting," Richardson recalled of the two games. "We had a pitcher who didn't really pitch much last year who came in and kept us in the game (in the nine-inning win). That game really made me believe we could be anybody."
And with the added confidence and added wins, the goals for this season continue to climb, with the ultimate goal being trying to reach the Class AAA state playoffs.
To some, that may seem like an excessively lofty goal considering the Longhorns' youth in every sense of the word.
But Longe wants his youngsters to continue to think big, while tempering those expectations with a game-by-game perspective.
"It's attainable," Longe said of reaching the postseason. "It's definitely something in our sights. We tell our guys to play one game at a time. For our program and this school, and the programs that all the athletic programs at this school have made in the second year, I think it would help catapult us into conversations with everyone, especially around the state.
"We're still kind of unknown and have that new school feeling. But for us, we don't look at it that way. We're in the second year of our program, and we want to take it to the next level."