NORTH FULTON, Ga. – After meeting in last year’s Class AAAAAA state championship baseball series, Milton and Roswell are both headed for return visits to the playoffs this season.
Milton held the lead in the Region 5-AAAAAA standings going into last weekend with an 8-2 record, 15-7 overall. Roswell was second at 7-3, 14-8 overall.
The two teams faced off in back-to-back games a few weeks ago, with Milton winning 13-4 at Roswell and Roswell winning 8-6 at Milton.
Milton has played a demanding non-region schedule, including six games against national caliber teams from out of state. The Eagles are 3-3 in those games, including a 2-2 mark in a national tournament in North Carolina in late March.
“Our schedule has been brutal,” Milton coach Joey Ray said, citing several other non-region games against 2013 region champions from metro Atlanta. “We have had our hands full.”
The Eagles returned nine key players from last year’s state championship squad, but shortstop Dylan Cease, who is also one of the team’s two aces, has been sidelined recently with an elbow injury.
That has left a hole in the team’s rotation, but Milton still has two top-flight starters in seniors Alex Schnell and Matt Geiger. Schnell, who pitched an eight-inning, two-hitter to win the third game of last year’s championship series, is 5-2 with a 1.00 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 49 innings.
Geiger has taken over as the No. 2 starter and is 5-0 with a 1.86 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 41 innings. Cease was 1-0 with a 1.09 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 12 innings before being sidelined. Schnell has signed with Clemson, and Cease is headed to Vanderbilt.
Cease is also a key offensive performer, batting .343 with 13 RBI in 12 games, and Ray hopes he will at least have Cease’s bat available for the postseason.
Other returning starters from last year’s team are first baseman Jack Thompson (17 RBI, .323, Georgia State signee); second baseman Ryan Gridley (.443, Mississippi State); third baseman Dalon Farkas (17 RBI on 18 hits, Kansas State) and center fielder Dalton Ewing (.407, Coastal Carolina).
Catcher Alec Miller and outfielder Erik Peterson are also returning starters, giving the Eagles a veteran group as they look to defend their title.
Ray said he is “still trying to figure out the No. 3 three starter,” with the Eagles having several candidates. Will Matthews has “been our go-to guy” for long and short relief, Ray said, with a 2-1 record and 2.19 ERA in six appearances, but no other Milton pitcher had worked more than eight innings as of the middle of last week.
Roswell suffered heavier graduation losses, with the Hornets having 10 seniors sign to play college baseball off the 2013 state runner-up squad. Roswell also lost returning starter Ryan Ritson, the team’s left fielder and No. 3 starter, for the season after Tommy John surgery.
Returning junior Austin Krzeminski, who has committed to Georgia Tech, is the Hornets’ No. 1 starter, with junior Rory Horde behind him. Senior Scott Franklin has done an outstanding job as the Hornets’ closer with a 4-1 record and five saves. Juniors Dion Simpson and Nick Barlow are vying to be No. 3 starter.
Offensively, the Hornets have less power than last season but more team speed, said coach Mike Power. Third baseman Mitchell Benson, a Georgia State signee, and outfielder Lawson Dunkin are among just a handful of returning starters off last season’s team.
Seniors Jordan Hovater and Colin McCaulley have moved into the lineup at shortstop and second base and have played well, along with junior catcher/DH Matthew Hammaker and Horde, an outfielder.
“The biggest thing is getting better as the season has progressed,” Power said. “Not many of our guys had an opportunity to play much last season.”