The Eagles also suffered through the growing pains of one of the state’s youngest lineups in the post season, seeing their state championship dreams come to an abrupt end when their bats went cold in the second round of the state playoffs.
So with seven of eight starters returning to the field and four of their top five pitchers back from last year’s 25-win team, Milton Head coach Joey Ray is hoping that a little extra seasoning on his talent will yield even bigger things on the diamond this spring.
“If we get the pitching and defensive play we expect along with timely hitting we feel we can compete with anyone in the state,” said the Milton skipper, now in his sixth year as head coach.
“[Experience] is going to help, but whether we are young or old we have high expectations for our program. Those expectations are to get better every day and work towards a region championship, the state playoffs and hopefully a state championship.”
A strength all of last year, the Eagles pitching staff this season will be anchored by seniors Matt Phillips and Payton Smith — a pair of righties signed to play collegiately at Georgia Tech and Appalachian State respectively.
Phillips, who sports a low-90 mile per hour fastball, went 8-1 last year with a 1.44 earned run average. Smith, the craftier of the two, posted an equally impressive 6-1 mark with a 1.10 ERA.
Ray said promising juniors Dylan Cease and Alex Schnell, who both saw significant innings in relief last year, will shuffle between the closer role and third starter spot.
“Pitching, along with defense, is what I expect to be our biggest strength. Those are the two things we stress and emphasize the most as a program.”
On defense, and in the lineup, Milton’s only loss was highly touted catcher Lucas Herbert, a rising sophomore that moved out of the district.
Six sophomores that started last year — Ryan Gridley (2B), Cease (SS), Dalton Ewing (CF), Jack Thompson (1B), Dalton Farkas (3B) and Schnell (RF) — return to the batting order along with senior Sean Brophy (LF). Nick Bradhsaw, a senior signed to play at William and Mary, is taking over for Herbert behind the dish.
“Getting timely hitting from those guys will be the key to our season, especially when we get to region play which is setting up to be as tough as any region in the state.”
Milton is playing in the Georgia Dugout Tournament this week and will travel to Harrison for their next game on Friday. Region play will commence March 18 at Wheeler.