Paladin Varsity Baseball Teams Hope to Build on Historic Successes of 2019; Opens Season Feb. 3 at South Forsyth HS
The Fellowship Christian School varsity baseball team set the bar very high last season.
The 24-10 Paladin squad qualified for the state playoffs for the fourth time in school history – and the second year in-a-row under the leadership of head coach Shawn Oliver – and also reached the Elite Eight for the first time ever this spring.
The team begins its 2020 season at South Forsyth High School in Cumming tonight (Feb. 3) at 6 p.m. Oliver's expectations are guarded despite the success of the 2019 club.
"It's a brand new year and we can't automatically expect this year's team to meet or exceed last year's performance," Oliver said. "Last year was a special year for our program, we earned a trip to Region championship, earned our way into the Elite Eight and two young men [Isaac Bouton and Cameron Gill] are continuing their baseball careers at the next level. If we automatically assume that's the level for our boys, then we put a ton of pressure on them and that's unfair to our team this season. That being said, we've got some young men who are in their third or fourth year as a full-time starter."
Last year's experiences helped some of the younger Paladins grow their skills on the diamond.
"We have several guys who were in those tough games last year when we lost one-run games and they've grown and learned what it took to even make it that far," Oliver added. "Once you get down to the final eight teams in the state, everyone is good and we've got to work hard to get back to being in that spot."
This year's Paladin squad returns six starters – senior Preston Joye, juniors David Bishop, Andrew Davidson, Matson Grose, Garrett Hauenstein and Luke Schmidt. There are another eight players who helped the team reach the Elite Eight – seniors George Moraitakis and Brett Eppinger, juniors Jonathan Morris and Landen Mittrucker, and sophomores Thomas Bourne, Grant Hudson, Wilson Long and Hayes Price.
A few new faces who Oliver thinks can really help the club includes junior Noah Goss and a group of freshman – Cooper Davidson, Will Phipps, Daniel Powell, and Jack Rickheim).
"We are looking strong at the dish again this year as we return 70% of our ABs from last year," Oliver said. "And our guys got bigger and stronger in the offseason. We've got to stick to our offensive approach – driving the baseball through the middle of the field, gap to gap, and forcing pressure on the bases – and if we can avoid getting too big in the box our guys can be successful. Defense is always going to be our strong suit, we put a ton of energy into making sure our guys are fundamentally sound and with the hiring of Coach Mackenzie to sure up our outfield, I'm more confident than ever. Our pitching staff is going to be able to throw strikes, force weak contact, and I know those guys behind them are going to make the plays."
Joye was among the FCS hitting and pitching leaders last season.
"Preston is stepping into a more vocal role this season, with our big vocal guy graduating last year," Oliver said. "I'm looking to Preston to be my voice in the dugout to help rally the troops and uphold our standards. I'm interested to see who else rises to the top, I'm not a huge believer in the fact that older guys are automatically leaders that is always ideal though, so I'm curious to see who's going to poke their heads out of our juniors, sophomores and freshmen."
Oliver and his coaching staff look to guide the boys this season to help the program continue to grow.
"Our success as a program starts and ends with the boys," Oliver said. "I've been blessed to have some very talented guys who have been coachable and turned our culture from a team that was ok with just competing every now and then to a team that expects to compete for Region championships and play deep into the post season. These guys are a talented bunch and as long as they can love each other and love the game, we'll continue to have success."
(File photo from 2019 season)