NORCROSS -- Coach Jonathan Wyman and his Norcross baseball team never expected wins to come easy this season.
Sure enough, the first week of Region 7-AAAAAA play was a rough one, as the Blue Devils were held to just one run and a total of six hits by three pitchers in losses to Peachtree Ridge and Mountain View.
Still, as early as it is in the region schedule and based on the results during a stout pre-region slate, all indications are that Norcross will have a major say in which of the region's four teams head to the postseason.
Prior to last week's two losses, the Blue Devils had won eight of their first 10 games, with five of those wins coming against teams with either the best or second-best records in their respective regions currently.
To some, the team's start is surprising given its 7-19 finish a year ago, which left it sixth in the seven-team region race, in Wyman's first season as head coach.
"I think last year was like a child trying to figure out, 'What can I get away with?' with a parent," Wyman said. "Now, they've learned what I expect from them. ... Being in Gwinnett County eight or nine years now (as an assistant before becoming head coach at Norcross), I know every school around here has a talent pool and expects to win. But the greatest thing that could've happened to us last year is we realized we couldn't do it on talent alone.
"Did I think the turnaround could've happened this quickly? Probably not, but we're getting better each day."
The first two region games notwithstanding, the Blue Devils (8-4, 0-2) have shown steady improvement, and they've done it what have become staples in the program -- pitching and defense.
Included in a staff earned run average of 3.22 through its first 11 games, Norcross features a one-two punch in the starting rotation of Joseph Wilber (2-0, 1 save, 1.09 ERA, 24 K, 19 IP before Friday's game against Mountain View) and Jackson Williams (3-2, 1 save, 2.80 ERA, 24 K, 25 IP) that rivals any in Gwinnett County.
But it is the development of a third strong starter in Trevor Craport (2-0, 0.64 ERA, 10 K, 11 IP) and solid depth in the bullpen, featuring rapidly improving young arms like Jordyn Thomas, Brooks Buckler and Will Shirah, plus a defense that has posted a .945 team fielding percentage so far, that has helped both staples become even more steady.
"I think it's a combination of ... mastering pitches -- curveball, change-up -- and also the arm strength thing," said Craport, a junior right-hander. "We worked a lot (in the offseason) on arm strength, and I got it up to where it was comfortable and I knew I could be comfortable locating my fastball at an effective speed to where I didn't have to rely on curveballs and change-ups."
Norcross hitters have made a similar adaptation that has boosted the team's production this season.
The major-league dimensions of the school's spacious field -- the wall is 320 feet away from the plate down the right-field line and 330 feet to left, while the power alleys are 380 feet, with the deepest part of the park 402 feet away to straightaway center -- have prompted an adjustment to the approach many of the Blue Devils bring to the plate.
"The problem when you (play at smaller) fields like Duluth or North Gwinnett, or when you hit one out at our park in batting practice, it feels so good, you try to hit another out," Wyman said. "So, we're trying to focus more on line drives and groundballs. I think our philosophy of taking the (home run) out of the equation has made us a well-rounded team."
In fact, the Blue Devils have hit but two home runs as a team this season -- one each by Griffin Helms and Jess Ramsey -- but have 20 doubles among their 93 team hits through last Wednesday's game.
More importantly, five starters came into Friday's game hitting over .300 for the season, with Helms, Wilber and Ramsey all over .400, while two more are hitting better than .260.
And despite scoring just one run in the first two region games, Norcross' season average of 6.2 runs per game demonstrate the players have bought into Wyman's small-ball approach, which Helms says requires each individual player to check his ego at the door and think of the team first.
"Our team is starting to play together. We're all playing as one," said Helms, who battled injury much of last season, but is healthy now and hitting .442 with a homer, five RBIs and a team-best eight stolen bases. "For us, it's not about ourselves. It's about the team."
And that team has a lot to battle, not just with the rugged opposition in Region 7-AAAAAA, it's battling the high expectations that have been raised by Norcross' success in other sports this school year.
With the Blue Devils having already won Class AAAAAA state championships in football, boys and girls basketball, the baseball team naturally feels a little pressure to at least put itself in position to make those feats.
But Helms says he and his teammates prefer to use the other teams' success as motivation to better themselves, rather than create pressure to live up to those accomplishments.
And it helps that Wilber was the quarterback of the football team, and has that championship experience.
"We know that since football and basketball won (state titles), we know we've got to get it done," Helms said. "It makes us want to work harder and do that much more because we don't want to be that one sport that didn't get it done. I wouldn't say it's pressure. It's more, 'If they can do it, we can do it.'
"We saw the football guys go out there and bust their butts, and we try to do the same thing. Since we have (Wilber) on the team, we know how hard he works, so we work with him."