HIGH SCHOOL HARDBALL: Already an eventful high school baseball season

Grayson's Austin Meadows — Photo Illustration: Brendan Sullivan and Nicole Puckett

Grayson's Austin Meadows — Photo Illustration: Brendan Sullivan and Nicole Puckett

With the winter sports now officially done for the season following four more state championships by Gwinnett County teams, I can finally turn my attention to what should be another strong high school baseball season.

It's already been a pretty eventful one, particularly last week (more on that in a minute).

But before I to my real point this week, a couple of housekeeping items to take care of.

First, congratulations to Greater Atlanta Christian's Cliff Shelton, who became Gwinnett County's all-time winningest coach following the Spartans' 8-6 win at Roswell last Wednesday.

We'll have more on this subject in a story we're planning for Wednesday's print edition, but the win gave him 547 for his career, surpassing the mark of 546 held by Parkview's Hall of Fame coach Hugh Buchanan.

So, kudos to Coach Shelton.

Second, I couldn't have asked for a better week to get my first look at high school baseball in the area. Over a four-day period, I got to witness three of the nation's consensus top 50 high school senior prospects — all centerfielders — in Grayson's Austin Meadows, Parkview's Josh Hart and Loganville's Clint Frazier.

And all three put on a show in their own ways — Frazier with his two-home run, five-RBI performance in Loganville's win over Grayson on Tuesday, Meadows for going a combined 3-for-5 with a homer, two RBIs and three stolen bases in that game and a 7-6 loss at Parkview on Friday, and Hart with a 1-for-3 night with an RBI in the latter.

But it was one play in particular involving Meadows and Hart that really caught my eye during Friday's Parkview-Grayson game.

It may seem kind of ordinary, but it occurred when the Panthers' Hunter Thornton (more on him in a minute), sent a routine single to center in the midst of what turned out to be Parkview's decisive fifth-inning rally.

Hart, on first after his RBI hit, was off on contact and quickly reached his full speed, viewing the play in front of him and picking up coach Chan Brown at third before rounding second to try take the extra base.

Meadows fielded the ball cleanly and fired a laser beam of a throw that reached Oscar Valdez on the fly about belt high at third, only to have Hart slide in just ahead of Valdez's tag.

Again, it may seem like just a routine play, but I still couldn't help but be struck by the fundamentals and execution on all three players involved — particularly Meadows and Hart, who combined Frazier and Winder-Barrow's Travis Demeritte, account for a strong portion of Baseball America's preseason All-American team and top senior draft prospects all within a 25-mile radius.

As loaded as last year's senior class was in terms of a talent pool, this year's class may be right up there with it.

Which brings me to the main point of this week's blog.

This time last year, I mentioned how tough it was picking out a preseason Super Six for our baseball preview, due to number of extremely talented kids I had to leave off it.

My "solution," if you can call it that, was simply to recognize a few of them for the "Next Super Six", which I actually expanded into a "Prime Nine" (apologies to the Major League Baseball Network).

This year, I was presented with a similar quandary by having to leave off several very worth candidates, a situation only exacerbated when one of the players who was chosen, Parkview's Jarrett Freeland, was forced to miss the rest of the season after being injured in a preseason scrimmage.

So, let's take a look at this year's crop of the "Next Super Six" I'm confident fans around the county will be hearing from this spring.

• LHP Tucker Baca, North Gwinnett, Jr.: He burst onto the scene as sophomore last year by going 6-2, with a 1.73 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 68 2/3 innings. That performance not only earned him a spot on the Daily Post's All-County second-team, but also a scholarship offer to Pac-12 (or is it 16? With all the conference shuffling lately, I've lost count) power Arizona State.

• 3B Josh Bryan, Buford, Sr.: The North Georgia commit was also a second-team All-County selection as a junior last year after hitting .402 with two homers, 36 RBIs and a 1.035 OPS, and he's gotten off to a strong start at the plate and in the field, and also on the mound, for the Wolves this season.

• 2B Jeril Dawson, Grayson, Sr.: With teammates like Super Six selections Meadows and Chris Erwin, it's not difficult to get overlooked. But Dawson was actually the Rams' leading hitter from last year at .441, to go along with a homer, 17 RBIs, seven stolen bases and 39 runs. He had a pretty good week last week, with a homer and four RBIs in Grayson's two games.

• LHP/OF Chris Erwin, Grayson, Sr.: Another one of the Rams' star-studded senior class who put up really good numbers as a junior a year ago. And like Dawson, he had a good week at the plate last week, with three hits, including a double and a homer, in six at bats over two games.

• SS/RHP Tyler Haswell, Peachtree Ridge, Sr.: He may have been the toughest to leave off this year's Super Six after a junior season in which he put up outstanding two-way numbers (5-2, 1 save, 2.35, 52 K, 53 2/3 IP; .341, 3 HR, 15 RBIs, .964 OPS), thus earning second-team All-County recognition by the Daily Post and a scholarship from South Carolina. And he's off to a red-hot start so far in 2013, hitting .455 with 11 RBIs and an 1.136 OPS, plus a 2-1 record wit ha 1.17 RA and 35 strikeouts in 24 innings though the Lions' first 10 games this year.

• C Hunter Thornton, Parkview, Sr.: A player who has really stepped up to produce in the wake of injuries to Freeland the last two seasons, hitting .366 with three homers and 15 RBIs as a junior last year. But the Mercer signee is just as strong defensively behind the plate, something he showed by gunning down Meadows trying to steal third in a crucial situation last Friday.

And that's not even counting several other players who were either already on the radar or have worked their way onto it early this season, such as Parkview's Ryan Blanton and Rob Youngblood, Shiloh's Marcus McCorkle and Kyle Lewis, Norcross' Joseph Wilber and Jackson Williams, Brookwood's Tre Lawrence and Zach Moon, Providence's Erich Stahl and newcomers like Duluth's Junior Fernandez or returners who have blossomed, like Collins Hill's Ryan Askew.

Suffice to say the talent pool in Gwinnett County seems just as deep this spring.