May 20, 2012
The all-Gwinnett party being thrown by Brookwood, Grayson, Mill Creek and Parkview in the Class AAAAA state baseball semifinals Monday has been, understandably, the talk of county since it became official last Wednesday.
Having teams from one county occupy all four spots in a semifinal bracket is, indeed, a rare feat.
And having five total teams still playing, including Providence Christian in Class A, is almost as rare.
Yet, there are a handful of people throughout Gwinnett who are not only not surprised by the Gwinnett's showing in this year's playoffs, but can even say they saw it coming.
Players, coaches and parents of two Greater Gwinnett Baseball League programs — the Georgia Storm and South Gwinnett Renegades — had to have an inkling that many of their players would go on to outstanding high school success after watching them succeed at just about every age group through the mid- to late-2000s.
For the Renegades, it was a gradual climb to greatness, with the bulk of the team staying together for several years, culminating in GGBL age division championships in three straight seasons from 2006-08.
When the state semifinals get under way Monday afternoon, eight of those players — Brookwood's Clint Carr, Michael Gouge, Lucas Sims and Ryan Woodard and Providence's Austin Loyd, Steven Slaughter, Austin Smith and Patrick Smith — will take the field for their respective high school teams fighting for a spot in the championship series.
The Storm, known as the South Gwinnett Storm at one point, also enjoyed its share of success, with age group titles from 2004-07.
But it was the 2009 team that has turned out to be particularly special.
While several players like Grayson's Casey Collins and Austin Meadows and Loganville's Kyle Hall were longtime members of the team, the Storm got a boost from some new additions that summer.
"We'd gotten beat by (Parkview's Rob) Youngblood, (Parkview's Hunter) Thornton and (Loganville's Clint) Frazier and that group the year before," recalled Storm head coach Mike Collins. "But their (GGBL) team disbanded, and we picked them up (the following year)."
It didn't take long for the group to jell, with the Storm not only taking that summer's age division title, but also winning at least three travel tournaments.
Now, 10 of the 11 members of that team — Youngblood and Thornton with Parkview, Casey Collins and Meadows with Grayson, Jordan Dykes and Michael Ranieri and Brookwood, Frazier and Hall with Loganville and Tyler Jarvis and Hunter Rice with George Walton Academy — are still playing in their respective classifications' playoffs.
Those two teams never really squared off against each other in GGBL or travel play, since the Renegades were a year older in age group.
But many of those players will now take the field Monday and/or Tuesday either as teammates or opponents with far bigger stakes on the line.
And that so many players concentrated on two specific teams can enjoy so much success year after year seems to parallel something I spoke with several of the coaches of the high school programs still playing late last week.
In talking with these coaches, they agreed that the camaraderie they built in playing together as teams during the summer had carried over to the high school teams the following season and played a big part in their respective programs' success.
Perhaps that same camaraderie was built by these two GGBL programs, and others like it over the past five or so years.
"Our (summer) vacation was baseball back in those days," MIke Collins said. "(Some members of the team) play six or seven years together. They were like one big family."
Those families will now be feuding (in some cases) to try to move on, but the success they learned on the diamonds of the GGBL in summer's past will likely mean some fun baseball on display over the next day or two, and even beyond for the winners.
And while there's no guarantee such a concentration of talent in one team, let alone two, whose to say the building blocks of the next generation of high school powerhouse won't be on display on some GGBL field this summer?