Most of the prospects for the upcoming RHHS baseball season have been engaged in competitive play over the past several weekends as part of the Wildcat baseball fall league.
"We’re not competing for trophies or titles, it’s purely practice and training," assistant fall coach Charlie Johnson said. "This league gives the kids the chance to stay in shape and develop and practice some of the fundamentals they’re going to need for try-outs. It’ll put them a little bit more on their game before the coaches evaluate them for the team."
Starting several weeks ago, the team has been playing double headers on Saturdays against other areas with similar programs.
There are two Wildcat fall teams – one made up mostly of younger players, headed by Tim Auger, and another strongly consisting of last year’s varsity players, headed by Lee Bowen.
Bowen’s coaching assistants for the older boys are Auger, Charlie Johnson and Jeff Crowe – each coach has a son on the team.
Fall coaching is led by volunteer dads as GHSA by-laws prohibit RHHS coaches from coaching the boys during this time of year.
The teams are run and funded by the Homerun Club, or RHHS baseball booster club.
Johnson said another advantage of the fall program is the opportunity for incoming freshmen to both become acquainted with existing players and to introduce them to the larger playing field.
He recognizes the loss of many top notch graduating seniors from last season. Four of those players, Aaron Pittsley, Cameron Corbin, Matt Schlag and Scott Strickland, were extended athletic scholarships to play college ball.
"We realize from last year’s season we took a really large hit from the senior class that departed," Johnson said. "Last year’s team represented Richmond Hill well and we followed them all the way to the state tournament in Columbus. We’ve got some big holes to fill in a lot of areas. First and foremost is our pitching. We lost three of the best pitchers Richmond Hill has seen in a long time in Cameron Corbin, Matt Schlag and Scott Strickland. We’re currently working to develop current fall players, like Raul Rodriguez, Matt Graney and Ben Auger, on the mound."
Helping to soothe those losses are some stellar players that are showing their talent in the fall league. Johnson doted on many of them.
Among them was senior Logan Wolf, whom he said has shown much improvement. "In the last few games, he has really emerged as a strong outfielder," Johnson said. "He’s tracking out fly balls that most outfielders can’t get to. He’s also greatly progressed on the mound since last year to where he’s routinely hitting the ball."
Johnson said another bright spot is rookie freshman and 14-year-old left-handed pitcher Kevin Mathews.
"Richmond Hill has needed a marquis left-handed pitcher for a long time," he said. "He’s got great velocity and control on his pitches. He’s getting a lot of pointers from the varsity catchers and learning (pitching coach Zach) Grage’s pitching signs."
Among the other regular fall players Johnson spoke of included Raul Rodriguez who "pitched incredibly against South Effingham last week", catchers John Johnson and Cody Rushing who "are great behind the plate…Cody is a great left fielder as well", Steven Boaen who "is very solid at short stop and hot with the bat."
The boys are also currently engaged in an off-season weightlifting program with regular season head coach Mitchell Curry. Johnson is optimistic about the upcoming season. "They will definitely be a competitive team," he said. "The potential is certainly there for these boys to take it as far as they want."
As far as fall game results go, the team is showing much success by garnering more wins than losses against the likes of Long County, Chain Academy, and Georgia Elite.
Last Saturday, in a double-header against South Effingham, the Cats won the first game 13-9 and tied the second game 6-6.
"They played well," Coach Boaen said. "Our offense was very good, and our pitching was even better."
As a bit of history to the fall program, it was initiated in 1997 by Sandy Strickland. Strickland is father to last year’s senior Scott Strickland and current RHHS varsity assistant coach Sean Strickland and umpires throughout the Coastal Empire. It was the elder Strickland that also started the Wildcat summer league that same year.
He said when he moved here from Atlanta, he was disappointed in the fact that there were no off-season leagues for the varsity players. He took matters into his own hands.
"Off season baseball was huge in Atlanta," Strickland said. "The only option the varsity boys had here was joining Chain teams."
Strickland explained that having local off-season leagues keeps the players together and keeps them focused on the kind of training they will specifically need for RHHS.
"It’s a great way to build a core group of boys and use the same techniques as the varsity level. At the time, it was techniques used by (former RHHS head coach) Mickey Bayens. Of course, Coach Curry’s methods are now utilized."