Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Parkview seniors AJ Davis, Jack Esmonde Jeff Ronpirin, Edwin Arias, Jesse Foster, Matt Olson, and Austin Fisher hope to defend their state title during the championship baseball game against Brookwood on Saturday.
LILBURN -- Every athlete dreams of ending a career on a winning note.
The Parkview baseball team's seven-member senior class has a rare opportunity to not only do so, but do it twice over when the top-ranked Panthers (29-6) host archrival Brookwood (25-10) for the Class AAAAA state championship beginning with Saturday's doubleheader at 4 p.m. at Hugh Buchanan Field.
A win of the best-of-three series would send seniors Edwin Arias, A.J. Davis, Jack Esmonde, Austin Fisher, Jesse Foster, Matt Olson and Jeff Ronpirin out with two straight state titles.
But even with that cherry on top, the Panthers' seniors legacy goes back much further than the past two seasons.
And it's one that will leave a lasting impression on the Parkview program.
"We've always had two summer teams," Parkview coach Chan Brown said. "Five years ago, ... through the process of each kid coming to camp. We knew (the class of 2012 was) going to be a special group. So, we invented an incoming ninth-grade summer team. At that point, we took on three summer teams (along with varsity and junior varsity). We got to kind of see a glimpse of 30 games before they ever hit Parkview together to see how special they are.
"We actually started them off in JV tournaments and finished them in varsity tournaments, and they were beating some varsity teams as (incoming) freshmen."
That talent and success has carried over to the class' high school career.
The seven seniors have been the backbone of a team that has gone a combined 98-34 (a .742 winning percentage), including an 83-21 mark over the last three seasons, culminating in last year's state title and a chance for another this year.
That means even if the Panthers are swept in Saturday's doubleheader, this year's seniors will still go out with a higher overall winning percentage than the class of 2002 that won two straight state titles, led by current Kansas City Royals outfielder Jeff Francoeur.
Of course, as Olson points out, he and his teammates want that second championship to match the class of '01.
However, another trophy would be more about the seniors adding to Parkview's overall legacy, rather than trying to keep up with any classes from the past.
"Coming into season, we have a little senior dinner every year," Olson said. "I remember sitting down (at this year's) and all of us talking with Coach Brown and saying, 'If we don't get another state championship, it'll just be a disappointment to all of us.'
"Obviously, we heard a lot (about back-to-back titles in 2001-02), especially at the beginning of the year. ... But I think we're trying to leave our own legacy. That was 10 years ago. We definitely respect what they've done for our program. We're trying to do something for this community."
Like Francoeur was with the class of '02, Olson is the centerpiece of the class of '12. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound first baseman/pitcher leads the team with nine home runs and 49 RBIs -- and is among the school's all-time leaders in both categories -- and 74 strikeouts on the mound, as well as being tied with Foster for the lead with 11 wins.
The Vanderbilt signee and 2011 Daily Post Co-Player of the Year could also join Francoeur as a high pick when the 2012 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft rolls around in about two weeks.
But he is hardly alone among the Parkview seniors in contributing to the program's success, with Arias and Esmonde having earned also All-County honors from the Daily Post last year, while Davis, Fisher, Foster and Ronpirin also playing major roles in the Panthers' deep playoff runs the past two years.
But as important as the group's talent is, their chemistry has played an equal part in helping the class build its legacy.
That may be perhaps best seen in how quickly the group accepted Arias, who did not play on Parkview's first ninth-grade summer team, but joined the program as a freshman the following spring, into their circle and made him feel at home.
"Everybody here is like a family," said Arias, who is hitting .386 with a homer, 23 RBIs, seven steals and 43 runs scored this season. "We're all one team. ... It was a little different to (try to) fit in at first, but they were definitely very accepting. It's been a great four years, so far."
And while the Panther seniors are concerned with ending their high school careers on a high note, they are equally concerned with the shape they leave the program in for the next generation to carry on the legacy they will leave.
To that end, the seniors already began the symbolic passing of the torch to a strong junior class that includes starters Jarrett Freeland, Josh Hart and Hunter Thornton and a promising sophomore class led by pitcher Mac Marshall.
"The young guys on the team last year were key for us," Olson said. "I think that's when we really realized these guys can definitely take the reins from us after we get done. This year, we're trying to do all we can to give them the keys (to the program). You've got to pass it down and keep the Parkview tradition going."