Every high school baseball coach wants some big-game experience on their rosters come playoff time, and Parkview coach Chan Brown has quite a bit of it.
But while the Panthers (34-4) have several players who have dealt with big-game pressure before as part of last year’s Class AAAAAAA state championship team, there is another element of this year’s championship series against Hillgrove (32-8), which begins with a doubleheader at 5 p.m. Monday, that neither team has dealt with before.
For the first time since it opened, SunTrust Park will play host to the championship series, and for many of the Panthers and the Hawks, this will be their first experience playing on the large stage that a major league ballpark provides.
And Brown says that he and Hillgrove’s David Richardson will have a challenge keeping those big-league surroundings from becoming too much of a distraction from the prize both teams are playing for.
“Honestly, SunTrust (Park) is going to be a different stage for us,” said Brown, who will be in pursuit of his fourth state title as the Panthers’ head coach. “Even in Gwinnett, we don’t play on that many big fields like that. So we’ve got to practice on some of those things.
“I think it does (help having an experienced team). We’ve got some kids who played in the state championship series last year. So that’s going to help us. But we’ve got to get out of the awe of being at (SunTrust Park).”
Parkview first baseman Stephen Hrustich admits that keeping from being too much in awe of the major league surroundings of the home of the Atlanta Braves will be a challenge.
However, he knows that if the Panthers are to have a chance to repeat as state champs, they will have to quickly put the stadium behind them, and he is confident they can do so.
“I’ve played a couple of games on some big fields, but never at a big-league park,” said Hrustich, who is 7-for-11 with two homers and 11 RBIs in Parkview’s last two playoff series. “Our team always tries to play great baseball, and we’ll try to just come out with two wins.”
One Parkview player who has experience playing in a major league ballpark is senior Jonathan French, who played in the Under Armour All-American Game last summer at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
And if there’s one piece of advice the Clemson-bound catcher will give to his teammates, it is to enjoy and embrace the big stage, but only to a point.
“Before the game, take in every moment,” said French, who is among Gwinnett County’s leaders in several offensive categories, including a .471 average with 13 home runs and 58 RBIs. “When you’re playing, take in every moment because this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play on that field. But at the end of the day, we’re there to take care of business and not admire what field we’re playing on.”
Aside from the large surroundings, the Panthers will have to deal with a formidable opponent in Hillgrove.
The Hawks are led by double threat senior Deion Walker, who has been a major force both on the mound and at the plate throughout the state playoffs, as well as right-handed pitcher Austin Heard, who held Grayson to just one hit with eight strikeouts in 4 2/3 shutout innings in Game 2 of the state semifinal seres, and Wade Richardson, who was 3-for-6 with two doubles, three RBIs and two stolen bases against the Rams.
And even as well as the Panthers have played, including during their state semifinal sweep of North Gwinnett, Brown knows they’ll have to be at their best in the title series.
“You’ve got to compete every pitch,” Brown said after Wednesday’s doubleheader sweep. “You’ve got to make plays, and there were some times when I didn’t think we played great (Wednesday) night. We’ve got to get some of that fixed before (Monday) because Hillgrove is a very, very talented group.
“It looks like (Hillgrove) is really, really well coached. Honestly, one through nine, they’re going to swing the bat really well and they’re going to put some pressure on you by moving around and doing some bunting here and there. So we’ve got to be fundamentally sound and do some good things.”