Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Parkview's head coach Chan Brown offers a helping hand to Ryan Blanton (4) after being thrown out at third base against Milton during game 3 of the Class AAAAAA state baseball semifinals in Lilburn Tuesday.
After winning state titles the previous two seasons, players, coaches and fans of Parkview's baseball team have come to expect to still be playing when the state playoffs move into the championship round during Memorial Day weekend.
So, it's understandable that seeing Milton advance to play Roswell for the 2013 title Saturday after winning a three-game semifinal series early last week at Hugh Buchanan Field was a bit of a shock for the Panthers.
"It's terrible not playing this weekend," senior rightfielder Ryan Blanton said Saturday. "I know a lot of people didn't really expect us to be as good this year, but we all knew what we were capable of."
True, while Parkview earned the respect of a two-time defending state champion and the defending national champion naturally commands, the Panthers (27-9) entered this season with somewhat mixed expectations from the state's prep baseball community.
They entered the season with a solid core of seasoned veterans, led by an 11-man senior class that included the trio of Blanton, Josh Hart and Rob Youngblood, who were starters in both of Parkview's back-to-back state titles.
However, there were also several holes to fill due to graduation from last year, as well as early-season injuries from this year -- not the least of which was losing another two-year starter in Jarrett Freeland to season-ending elbow surgery.
And with Grayson returning just about every starter from last year's semifinal team, as well as other tough teams near the top of the Region 8-AAAAAA standings, it wasn't even certain the Panthers would be able to defend their three straight region titles, much less the state titles.
"I know everybody in our community had thoughts of a (state title) three-peat," Parkview coach Chan Brown said. "But we had some adversity with a lot of different injuries, and a lot of underlying things people never saw that we had to battle through. The younger kids had to battle through that, but they came through.
"And not that polls mean a whole lot, but when everybody expected Grayson to win (region and perhaps state), I think our kids did put that on their shoulders a little bit."
And while the Rams were formidable challengers, the Panthers shouldered that burden with a pair of one-run victories over Grayson, including an extra-inning thriller in the regular-season finale, to claim their fourth straight region championship.
As important as veterans like Hart (.449, 5 HR, 29 RBIs, 39 R, 33 SB), Blanton (.352, 9 HR, 26 RBIs, 41 R, 14 SB), Youngblood (.319, 2 HR, 17 RBIs, 17 R), Thornton (.333, 9 HR, 29 RBIs) and Mac Marshall (6-2, 2.33 ERA, 79 K, 45 IP) were in the Panthers' postseason run, the contributions of newcomers to the line up were just as critical.
Getting their first opportunities to make regular contributions, players like Jarrett Hood (.371, 11 HR, 43 RBIs), Micah Finley (.432, 1 HR, 12 RBIs, 19 R), Christian Vann (7-2, 3.17 ERA, 40 K, 53 IP) and Sam McCoy (6-1, 10 saves, 2.26 ERA, 47 K, 49 IP) proved indispensable.
"I know that when we lost Jarrett Freeland (in the first week of the season), a lot of people said, 'Uh oh, they're in trouble,'" Brown said. "But guys like Vann stepped up and won seven games. I knew Sam would be good this year, but he proved to be the ultimate equalizer. ... And Jarrett Hood did a lot of great things for us. And some other younger players also stepped up, ... and that's going to help us into next year."
The Panthers will need new sources to step up with the large, championship-tested senior class graduating.
And though that group came up short in their quest for a three-peat, Blanton said he and his fellow seniors are proud of the legacy they leave behind for the underclassman to try and build upon.
"We're upset we didn't finish the way we wanted," the Georgia State-bound outfielder said. "But we still have a lot to be proud of. We have a lot to look back on and smile about."
They also leave with plenty of respect, even from the team that ended their title reign.
Having played his high school ball at archrival Brookwood in the late 1990s, Milton coach Joey Ray already knew about the success Parkview has built over the years.
And he said he has used that success, as well as that which he and the Broncos enjoyed during his playing days, to help build his Eagles into title contenders.
"Me and my staff and coaches have really listened and learned a lot from what (Parkview has) done," Ray said. "Realistically, we've tried to shadow them here off what they do. We owe a lot of our success just from learning from them. They're a wonderful program, and I've learned so much from them. It means a lot to us to win this series."