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Title pursuit begins for Gwinnett baseball teams

Photo: Karl L. Moore  Parkview pitcher Sam McCoy (21) pitches to Grayson's Chris Erwin (7) during Friday night's game at Parkview.

Photo: Karl L. Moore Parkview pitcher Sam McCoy (21) pitches to Grayson's Chris Erwin (7) during Friday night's game at Parkview.

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The past two seasons, Gwinnett teams have enjoyed enormous success in the state high school baseball playoffs, with half of the 10 classification state championships being claimed by county teams.

However, as this year's playoffs gets set to begin with first-round series beginning with doubleheaders Friday, Gwinnett will send in another healthy contingent looking to make a deep postseason run, and extend the county's streak to six straight years with at least one state champion.

In Class AAAAAA, it will be tough to match the domination Gwinnett had a year ago, when all four of the state's semifinalists in Class AAAAA came from within the county.

A lot of eyes will be on Parkview (20-6), which just wrapped up its fourth straight region championship with an extra-inning win at Grayson last Friday, and will begin its run toward a third straight state title by welcoming Etowah to Hugh Buchanan Field for a best-of-three, first-round series Friday.

The Panthers will try to become just the 15th team from the 14 different schools to win a state title three straight seasons (Columbus has done it twice), and the first in the state's largest classification since Evans' three-peat from 1988-90.

There is no shortage of formidable challengers capable of ending Parkview's streak — including Grayson (18-8), the team the Panthers just edged for the Region 8-AAAAAA crown, and Region 7-AAAAAA champion Mill Creek (19-7), both of which were semifinalists in Class AAAAA last season.

But head coach Chan Brown is confident the team's postseason should prove most valuable as his team defends its title.

"This is a mature group," Brown said after last Friday's 4-3 win in eight innings over Grayson. "And the kids who were rookies at the beginning of the season have had 25 games now to mature, and they're starting to make plays."

Playoff experience could also be a factor for many of Parkview's challengers, including the aforementioned Grayson and Mill Creek, as well as defending AAAAA state runner-up Brookwood (15-11), Peachtree Ridge (17-9) and North Gwinnett (15-11), all of which were playoff teams a year ago.

Only Norcross (17-9, making its first postseason appearance since 2008) and South Gwinnett (20-6, back in the playoffs after a year's absence) are relative playoff newcomers among Gwinnett's AAAAAA teams.

Experience is also on the minds of some of the count's smaller classification playoff teams, especially Lanier (18-8), which has a tough task in front of it by having to travel to three-time defending Class AAA state champion Columbus in the opening round of the Class AAAA playoffs Friday.

But coach Chad Longe says his Longhorns will come into that series a year older and a year wiser after making their postseason debut in just the program's second varsity season a year ago.

"I don't think it's as big as last year," Longe said of the team's viewing of simply making the playoffs. "I don't think we'll be as wide-eyed as we were last year. And if we're going to get in, we might was well see the best early."

Buford (21-4) has a much more lengthy playoff tradition — including the 2011 Class AA state title — as they make their fifth straight playoff appearance by playing host to St. Pius X in a Class AAA series, as do Gwinnett's two Class AA playoff teams — Wesleyan and GAC, though the Spartans will be making their first playoff appearance since 2008.

However, Wolves coach Tony Wolfe points out that many of his players have fairly few postseason games under their collective belts, and he is curious to how those youngsters react.

"We're a young team," Wolfe said. "We start, at most, three seniors, and sometimes less than that. So, I'm a little unsure of how our team will react to playoff mode. I'm not sure we're as playoff ready as we've been in previous years, and there's a little bit of the unknown involved. But I do think we're playing very well right now."

If Buford is dealing with the unknown, it's nothing compared to the uncertainty facing Gwinnett's two Class A private school teams, Providence Christian (15-11) and Hebron Christian (13-11) — the last two champions in the state's smallest classification.

Those two must await the release of the brackets under the new postseason split with public schools Tuesday, plus any appeals before those brackets are finalized Wednesday, to find out if they even make the playoffs, let alone what their matchups will be.

Both seem likely to get in, based on their previous standings in the state's complicated power rankings and last week's results.

And while Storm coach Adam Cantrell admits the late notice and short turnaround could cause some difficulty, his focus — and that of his team — needs to be more narrowly focused.

"It does make it somewhat difficult in getting a mental picture of who you're going to play," Cantrell said of the short turnaround from the release of the brackets to the beginning of play Friday. "Really, travel is the biggest issue. But our team is what our team is at this point. It's like (GAC coach) Cliff Shelton told me a long time ago. You've got to (keep doing) what your team likes to do (at this stage of the season)."