SUGAR HILL -- Given how quickly Lanier's baseball program grew up a year ago, with the Longhorns qualifying for the postseason in just its second year of existence, expectations naturally grew heading into Season 3 this spring.
"We've tried to have team goals each year," head coach Chad Longe said. "The coaches, we sort of have conversations away from the team. Not that we put numbers on anything, but we have an idea of where we want to be, and then we challenge our players to come up with team goals.
"After making it to the playoffs last year, we didn't want to be a one-hit wonder. We knew we had good returning talent. ... It was really the goal of the players to challenge for the region title -- building off the confidence (of last year)."
Whether Longe and his team have set the bar too high with their goals of taking the next step from being contenders to make the playoffs to being contenders for both a Region 8-AAAA championship, and perhaps a serious contender for the Class AAAA state title, remains to be seen.
Based on the results so far, it appears the Longhorns (11-4 overall, 4-1 in region) appear to have the ability to reach such heights.
Despite a disappointing loss at Stephens County on Monday, Lanier enters a rematch with Stephens County today at home tied with the Indians in the loss column and just one game in that column behind Eastside for the region lead.
The Longhorns have put themselves in that position thanks to a nucleus of players that has, like the program itself, grown up over the past three seasons, particularly a strong junior class led by pitching ace Kameron Doster (4-0, 0.64 ERA, 32 strikeouts in 32 innings through his first seven appearances) and catcher T.J. Richardson (.390, 8 RBIs, .933 OPS).
But it has been other members of that class, such as Trenton Little and Matthew Ramsay, who have also made major contributions to the Longhorns' steady climb up the ladder of success.
Both junior right-handed pitchers and infielders were particularly helpful to the team on the mound last season, but both have taken their games up to a higher rung with both their pitching and at the plate this spring.
"I had to work more on my hitting this year," said Ramsay, who has a team-best 11 RBIs and five doubles to go along with a .263 average, while posting a 2-1 record with a save, a 2.04 ERA and 27 strikeouts in 24 innings. "I just did a little more tee work, and just focused on the mechanics and fundamentals of the game. I think everybody contributes equally to the team, and I felt like I needed to keep up with everybody else. So, I worked hard at it.
"I think we win games as a team. We did last year, too. So, (in that way) there's not much difference between the teams."
Little had made a similar jump in being a two-way contributor, hitting .351 with six RBIs and 1.043 OPS, while matching Doster's team lead with a 4-0 record, plus a 1.62 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 17 innings so far.
But while he says he and his teammates are not about to get ahead of themselves and are zeroed in on contending for the region title, they have even more ambitious aspirations further down the line.
As Longe earlier pointed out, Little says the Longhorns don't simply want to make the playoffs.
They want to make some noise during them after making a quick exit -- being swept by eventual state runner-up Ringgold in the first round of the Class AAA playoffs -- a year ago.
"It was always the team goal to be region champs, and we've been really working as a team (to attain that goal)," Little said. "We went (to the postseason) last year and got our butts beat. We really want to go this year and contend and compete."
To that end, Longe put together a very challenging pre-region schedule that included seven games against teams from Gwinnett's two Class AAAAAA regions.
And the Longhorns more than held their own, going 5-2 in those games, including wins over traditional power and neighborhood rival North Gwinnett, as well as fellow Region 7-AAAAAA contender Duluth.
And Longe believes playing such a strong non-region slate will pay dividends down the road as the Longhorns continue to battle Eastside and Stephens County for the region title, and perhaps beyond.
"Our backs are against the wall," Longe said. "There are some really good teams in our region right now, ... but I think we're as talented as any team out there.
"We play Mountain View every year. We put North, Norcross, Wesleyan, Duluth, Archer, Dacula -- pretty much our whole region (schedule), aside from Cedar Shoals, is from Region 7 or 8 (AAAAAA) teams. I wanted us to play stiff competition before we got into region so we would know where we stand. I guess you can say it's a little biased, but I think Gwinnett County has the best baseball."