May 25—Lassiter's baseball program will try to win its first state championship since 2009 when it takes on Houston County in the Class AAAAAA final beginning Wednesday at Truist Park.
The Trojans, who last played for the title in 2010, and Bears, who won state titles in 2014 and 2016, will play a doubleheader at the Atlanta Braves' ballpark beginning at 5 p.m. If a champion is not decided after two games, a Game 3 would begin at noon Thursday.
Lassiter (32-6) comes into the series on a roll. It has won 17 of its last 18 games, having beaten Cambridge, nationally ranked Carrollton, Valdosta and east Cobb rival Pope to get to the title series.
Maybe even more impressive is, as the No. 3 seed coming out of Region 6AAAAAA, the Trojans won all four series on the road.
Against Pope, Lassiter got complete-game pitching performances from Ben Norton and Walker Noland, who combined to allow a total of nine hits and two runs, including a two-hit shutout by Noland in Game 2. Both should be ready to go against a Houston County lineup that also seems to be peaking at the right time.
The Bears (31-7) come in having won 18 of their last 19 games. They swept Tucker, Richmond Hill and East Paulding, and after dropping the opening game against Allatoona, came back and beat the Bucs on the road in the semifinals.
Lassiter coach Kyle Rustay, an assistant on Lassiter's last championship team under then-coach Scott Kelly, said his team is looking forward to the challenge.
"From top to bottom, I think the lineups match up fairly evenly," Rustay said. "The top four guys we need to keep off base, but I don't think you can sleep on the bottom of the order either."
Houston County comes in hitting .375 as a team, led by outfielder Gage Harrison (.525), but much of the focus will be on the Bears' pitching staff. Florida State signee Brodie Chestnutt is the team ace and will likely pitch Game 1, followed by Georgia signee Coleman Willis in Game 2.
Both players can hit the low 90s with their fastball, and Rustay said while it will be a challenge, it is not something Lassiter has not seen before.
"We've seen (Allatoona's) Logan McGuire twice, among others," he said.
If there is a Game 3, Houston County could throw Andrew Dunford, a 6-foot-7 right-hander who shut out Allatoona in Game 3.
All that said, Rustay said it is a honor to have a chance to play for the title in a special place.
"It's unbelievable for the kids," he said about playing at Truist Park. "To be able to stand where some of your heroes have played is awesome. However, when the first pitch rolls around, it's a baseball game."
There are a couple differences the teams will have to take into account. The infield dirt area is slightly bigger than on a high school field, and there is much more room in the outfield.
That last fact has been a focus at practice over the last week, as it was for Mount Paran Christian leading to the Class A private championship series at Coolray Field, the home of the Triple-A Gwinnett Stripers. It allowed the Eagles' players to get to balls that would have been a home run in their own park.
Rustay said he watched the Class AAAAAAA championship series between Parkview and North Paulding on Monday at Truist Park. He said North Paulding played the outfield very deep early in the first game and crept in as the doubleheader on.
Rustay said it likely will be the outfield adjustments that help control the games, with the idea of avoiding a lot of hits just over the infield.
"You don't want death by a 1,000 cuts," Rustay said.
One relief for both teams is the fact the wait is over and they will get to play a meaningful game again. Lassiter has not played for nine days, while Houston County has been idle for eight.
Rustay said the biggest challenge for him and Houston County coach Matt Hopkins has been what to do at practice.
"There is a fine line," Rustay said. "You want to get quality reps, but you don't want to wear guys out.
"From a physical standpoint, everybody is healthy, out pitchers are on their regular schedule and we've tried to maintain out hitters' timing."