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Panthers, Broncos ready to rumble for state baseball title

LILBURN -- They tried.

Coaches and players from both top-ranked and defending state champion Parkview and Brookwood really tried to downplay their rivalry in the first hours after each earned its way in the Class AAAAA state baseball championship series earlier this week.

But this is one of Gwinnett County's most intense neighborhood rivalries, after all, and the two schools will be meeting with a state championship on the line for the seventh time in the fourth different sport -- the first time on the baseball diamond.

"It is what it is," Parkview coach Chan Brown said. "People can downplay it as much as they want, but it's Parkview-Brookwood. ... It makes it even more exciting. To get (to the championship series) is hard enough as it is. To look across the way playing people that are three miles away, that makes it cool."

With temperatures expected to be in the low 90s when the Panthers (29-6) and Broncos (25-10) square off for a doubleheader at 4 p.m. at Hugh Buchanan Field to begin the best-of-three series and the normal intensity in any contest between the two schools, the atmosphere figures to be pretty hot.

Brookwood coach Rick Howard doesn't doubt that, though he does point out that the hype and atmosphere will only go so far.

At some point, the two teams will have to settle down and play baseball.

"What we talk about is, once a pitch has been made, it's about the game," Howard said. "All the other stuff becomes secondary. I think our leadership and our kids understand that.

"All the hype and everything is going to be awesome. It's going to be fun. But really and truly, when that first pitch is made. It's really about the game and how you play the game at that point."

The same goes for the previous two meetings between the two teams during Region 8-AAAAA play earlier this season, both won by Brookwood -- a 5-2 win at home April 14, followed by a 7-3 victory at Parkview on April 23 -- even with a few pitching oddities during the season series.

With senior ace Lucas Sims having thrown a complete game in each game, the Panthers have not seen any other Brookwood pitchers this season.

By the same token, the Broncos saw possible Game 2 and 3 starters Jesse Foster and Mac Marshall this season, but not Matt Olson, who is likely to receive the start in Game 1.

But as Sims pointed out, with players from the two teams having played against each other at multiple levels of baseball over the years, there are few secrets among them.

"It's all a game," said Sims, who is 8-0 with a 1.09 ERA and 91 strikeouts in 70 innings this season. "You play the game. You don't play your opponent.

"It's the state championship. They're coming out tooth and nail. They're a great ball club. We have a lot of respect for them. It's going to be a battle."

The Panthers come into the series a little more battle tested after winning the state title last year, though they may come in with two of their more experienced warriors limited by injury.

Second baseman Jeff Ronpirin has been limited to just pinch-running and courtesy running duties the last two rounds with a cast on his arm following an injury suffered in the Panthers' second-round sweep of Newnan.

Meanwhile, shortstop Edwin Arias injured a shoulder during Parkview's semifinals sweep of Mill Creek, though the senior vows to be ready to play today.

"You don't ever get this chance again in your life," said Arias, who is hitting .386 with a home run, 23 RBIs and 43 runs scored this season. "I'm definitely going to make it worth it."

Even in the worst-case scenario with regard to their middle infield duo, the Panthers still have plenty of players with championship experience, including Olson and fellow seniors Foster and Jack Esmonde and juniors Josh Hart, Rob Youngblood, Ryan Blanton and Jarrett Freeland.

But while Brookwood doesn't have that kind of experience, the Broncos also know what a championship atmosphere is like.

The current seniors were eighth graders when they watched Brookwood win the 2008 Class AAAAA state title, and Sims even got a chance to pitch an inning when the Broncos advanced to the state semifinals the following year.

And after being eliminated in the state quarterfinals last year, this year's Broncos are ready to make the most of their opportunity.

"I came to every series," said Brookwood senior third baseman Michael Gouge. "That was just fun watching them play and how excited they were.

"Last year, we were pretty stacked. So we were pretty disappointed when we didn't do more. So, the goal this year was to win it all."