Within the confines of any high school sports program, each year’s team takes on its own identity, a phenomenon that is often seen in programs fortunate enough to earn multiple championships.
The same can definitely be said for Parkview’s baseball team, which secured the program’s eighth overall state title with a 4-1, 9-0 sweep of Hillgrove in the Class AAAAAAA championship doubleheader Monday at SunTrust Park.
Sure, this year’s team shares quite a few traits in common with championship teams of from Parkview’s past.
There is the power — the Panthers (36-4) slugged 42 home runs as a team, led by 13 from Jonathan French and 10 from Stephen Hrustich — and a strong 1-2 punch at the top of the starting pitching rotation, led by right-handed juniors Miles Garrett (8-0, 2.17 ERA, 84 K, 67 2/3 IP) and Xander Stephens (10-1, 0.68 ERA, 82 K, 72 IP).
There’s also the national recognition, with Parkview appearing in every major set of national rankings, including being named as high as No. 6 by MaxPreps.
However, there are also several differences which makes the latest Panthers title team unique and special in the eyes of head coach Chan Brown.
“Every one of them is different,” said Brown, who has overseen five of Parkview’s eight state championship teams after Monday’s wins, including consensus national title teams in 2012, 2015 and 2018. “And obviously, everything that transpires during the course of the year (is different). We had some kids (on this year’s team) that were kind of unknown. To their credit, they made themselves known (in terms of) college scholarships. We’ve had some guys commit just in the last week who if it wasn’t for the playoffs, they might now have, and they came up big.
“I can’t say enough about the kids. I mean, the kids have battled all year long. I put these kids through a lot of tests, a lot of long hours, and they persevered through it. Between the players and the staff, we kind of came together and it’s kind of been such a love chemistry.”
Indeed, one of the things that makes Parkview’s current team unique from past title teams revolves around the star power of its individual talent.
To be sure, there are handful of players who have proven their big-time bonafides, particularly during big moments.
French, who finished the season with a .472 batting average with the 13 homers and a Gwinnett-best 61 RBIs, has already signed to play college baseball at Clemson, but may also be a major target for the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft in the next few weeks.
Hrustich, who has reclassified for the Class of 2020, but is considered a senior in terms of the Georgia High School Association, also had a big year with a .396 average, 10 homers and 47 RBIs, while senior outfielder Makenzie Pate (.375, 6 HR, 35 RBIs, 19 SB) will play college ball at Coastal Carolina, and both Garrett (Vanderbilt) and Stephens (Georgia Southern) are already committed to Division I college programs for next year’s senior class.
But in comparison, even Brown admits that there were fewer household names this spring than there have been on past Panther title teams.
In fact, there were quite a few major contributors to the team — such as shortstop Koby Ayala and second baseman Noah Brown and right-handed relief pitcher Brad Stanley, to name a few — who very much flew under the radar in terms of statewide and national attention.
“Early on (this season), there’s not a whole lot of people who gave this group a shot,” Brown said. “They were a bunch of unknowns, except for a couple of guys coming back. These kids, (especially) our middle infielders (Ayala and Brown), they were called average on every scounting report all year. Those two really showed out all year. I can’t say enough (about them).
“We had some sophomores that came in late and helped us. Just what a thrill for our community. What a thrill for our school, our program. Going back-to-back makes it more special. I’m just proud of these kids.”
True, winning back-to-back championships is an accomplishment that is particularly special for the Panthers’ seniors, and the fact that they may have been a little less heralded coming into the season due to the number of first-time starters after heavy graduation losses from last year made it even more satisfying.
“That’s who we are. We’re Parkview baseball,” Makenzie Pate said. “Every year Coach Brown tells us the first day of practice, ‘We’re going for a state championship. So every practice is for this moment right here.
“Last year, we just had a ton of talent. This year, our motto was, ‘Dirtballers.’ That means we have to work harder than (every other team).”
One more factor that made this year’s title unique for the Parkview program, as well as every other program in Georgia, was the size of the stage on which it was earned.
As the first championship series played a SunTrust Park, getting to celebrate on a major league field is a memory he says he and his players will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
“What a cool place. I can’t say enough,” Brown said. “The (Georgia High School Association) did a nice job with this. We weren’t quire sure how it was going to be. It’s such a big place. It’s just an awesome experience from beginning to end. Obviously, winning it helps.
“We practiced all week in some bigger spaces, so I feel like we came in prepared, ready to go. The kids played well. I think they were in awe there for a little while. Then they came out of it and played baseball.”