When Jed Hixson looked at the schedule for his first season as Grayson's baseball coach, he knew there were going to be plenty of tough challenges in addition to the normally rugged Region 8-AAAAAA slate.
And considering the talented, senior-laden club returning from last year's state semifinalist team, a challenging non-region schedule seemed not only understandable, but prudent in preparing the team for another postseason run.
But with the Rams (6-5 overall, 3-2 in region play heading into Monday's game at Shiloh) struggling somewhat through the first two weeks of region play, their participation in this week's National High School Invitational at the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary, N.C., would seem to be the last thing they need.
Or, it could be an opportunity, as region rivals Parkview and Brookwood demonstrated when they played in the tournament last year before eventually facing each other in the Class AAAAA state championship series.
So, Hixson sees the four-day tournament featuring 16 of the national's top-ranked teams as more of the latter.
"It doesn't get any easier, for sure," Hixson said following his team's 9-5 loss at Brookwood last Wednesday. "The competition we're going to see in Cary is top-notch. So, if we don't get some of these things figured out, we might get embarrassed, which is not what we want to do by any means.
"These region ball games are what are most important, and we've got to get (things) figured out. I'm hoping (it will be an opportunity to turn things around). In talking to (Brookwood) Coach (Rick) Howard before (Wednesday's) game, he said they came back after (the tournament) and kind of got back into a routine. Hopefully we can do that, too, and play good baseball. Win, lose or draw, as long as we play good baseball, hopefully we can bring that back with us."
The Rams actually have been playing good baseball in spurts so far this season, but have had a problem lately in holding on to late leads or staying close, with sixth-inning rallies being a particular thorn in their sides in losses to Loganville, Parkview and Brookwood in the last two weeks.
And the task won't get any easier at the NHSI, with Grayson opening play Wednesday at 3:45 p.m. against Cathedral Catholic of San Diego, which is has been ranked as high as No. 1 by Baseball America and USA Today, in the first round.
The Dons feature five Division I college-committed pitchers, including left-hander Stephen Gonsalves, a University of San Diego commit and the No. 13-ranked national senior prospect by Baseball America, and fellow lefty and junior UCLA commit Brady Aiken.
"We're opening up with a team that's No. 1 nationally," Hixson said. "So, the competition can't get any better than that. Hopefully, we can play the game well -- not worry about who we're playing, but play the game well."
That's just a taste of what Grayson will face with 14 other opponents of equal quality, though the Rams aren't exactly going into the tournament without any weapons.
Most eyes will be on centerfielder Austin Meadows, who was hitting .542 with three home runs and 11 RBIs through Grayson's first 10 games and is Baseball America's top-rated high school senior prospect for this summer's Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.
However, there are other Rams who will get a chance to catch the eyes of numerous college and professional scouts expected to be in attendance, such as Kennesaw State signees Taylor Allum and Chris Erwin, plus other high-rated seniors like second baseman Jeril Dawson and outfielder/right-handed pitcher Korey Anderson.
"It's a great opportunity for these kids," Hixson said. "That has been outstanding and fun, but hopefully, it hasn't been a distraction."`