Following an incredibly tumultuous offseason, the Cartersville baseball program enters the year under the leadership of interim head coach Kyle Tucker.
Legendary head coach Stuart Chester, who won six state championships in his 20 seasons with the Canes, left in May to take the same position at Buford. A month later, Cartersville talked another legend, Bobby Howard, out of retirement only for the former Columbus skipper to resign in late July due to an issue with his pension.
After that whirlwind, Tucker finally landed the job, albeit with the interim tag attached. A Cartersville High graduate and former player and assistant coach under Chester, Tucker is excited to assume the responsibility of leading one of the state's top baseball programs.
"I feel good about it," he said. "I obviously know a lot of them, been around a lot of them for a long time. I think that's kind of helped, some familiarity. We may not always do things the way we did in the past, but that doesn't matter. Any time there's a change in leadership, there are going to be some things that have to change.
"We're not trying to reinvent the wheel. I think the kids have bought in. I played for coach Chester, and I was an assistant for him for 11 years. Been around a lot of wins, seen what a winning program looks like, and we're just going to try and keep the winning tradition of Cartersville baseball going this year."
To do that, the Canes will need to shake off a disappointing 2017 season.
Despite playing one of the toughest schedules in the state, Cartersville finished with a solid 22-10 record, including an 8-4 mark in an extremely top-heavy Region 5-AAAA.
However, the Canes were swept in the first round of the state tournament by Blessed Trinity, marking the first time since 1995 that the program failed to reach the Round of 16.
Tucker said the disappointment from 2017 will certainly be a motivational tool this time around. Although, he said that will likely be talked about more towards the end of the season.
On paper, the team should be much better, entering the season ranked fourth in Class 4A by Georgia Dugout Preview and No. 33 in the country by Perfect Game.
Cartersville will be easily one of the most talented in the state, with four currently committed to Power-5 schools. But Tucker knows that doesn't count for anything.
"That doesn't win a game," he said. "You don't meet the opposing coach at home plate before the game, they ask you how many Division-I players you have and it counts for runs or anything. ...
"It's a great thing, but we haven't done anything in 2018. They'll tell you we have a lot of players who played last year, and we didn't make it out of the first round. That was the first time that had happened in Cartersville in almost 20 years, so we're trying to have a little better season this year."
One of the keys to a successful season will be the play of Anthony Seigler. The reigning Daily Tribune News Player of the Year enters his senior season as one of the top players ever to come out of Bartow County.
Seigler, a Florida commit, will likely be selected in one of the early rounds of the MLB draft this summer. An ambidextrous pitcher, Seigler threw 65 1/3 innings with 81 strikeouts and a 1.71 ERA in 2017. At the dish, the switch-hitter posted a .438 batting average with six home runs.
"It's just amazing to watch him play," Tucker said of Seigler. "I mean he throws with both arms. ... There's no drop off. It's not like one is better than the other. It's just amazing. Then to watch him hit is he's just a competitor. That's the best way to describe him.
"Guys like that you don't have to coach, as far as motivating them. Every day he shows up, and he knows what the expectation is: let's work hard."
Tucker knows a good portion of the team's success will hinge on Seigler's play.
"We're really looking for him to have a big year," Tucker said. "Not to put too much pressure on him, but kind of as he goes, we go. If he has a big year, the team has a chance to have a big year. We expect that from him, and I can't wait to see him play."
To be clear, the Canes are much more than just Seigler.
Shortstop Devin Warner, who is committed to Auburn, is also a likely draft pick after leading the county with nine home runs and 30 RBIs. The DTN pitcher of the year, Mason Barnett — another Auburn commit — returns for his junior season after striking out 58 hitters in just 42 2/3 frames.
The fourth Power-5 commit, senior Jake Gooch is set to attend Georgia Tech following an impressive offseason, during which he landed on nine Perfect Game all-tournament teams.
There are plenty of other studs returning for the Canes, including J.P. Martin, an all-county selection in 2017; Preston Welchel, a South Alabama commit; and Jordan Wilkie, a Lipscomb commit.
With all of those talented players, plus plenty of others, scouts will be frequently attending Cartersville games this season.
Tucker isn't too worried about handling all that comes with the territory. Thankfully, he has a blueprint to work with after watching Chester deal with the hoopla surrounding Donavan Tate, who was drafted third overall by the San Diego Padres in 2009 — Tucker's third year as an assistant.
"I saw how he would balance letting Donavan showcase his skills, but also not singling him out," Tucker said. "You don't want players saying, 'Well, that guy's getting more attention than me.' That's the last thing you want as a coach."
If things go well for the Canes, there should be plenty of attention to go around. A good chunk of it will be on Tucker, as he hopes to navigate the tricky waters of coaching his alma mater, while also transitioning from assistant to head coach.
"It's pretty awesome," he said. "I haven't really stopped and thought about it that much. I do have a lot of pride in the program. ... When you stop and think about it like, good grief, I'm the head coach this year, it is kind of a humbling thing. But you also know it's a big responsibility."