Canes face Heritage in state semifinals

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The Cartersville High baseball team lost to Heritage by one run in the de facto region championship game in 2016. The game was at Richard Bell Field late in the year, and it included a late-inning comeback from the Generals to move the Canes down to a 2-seed out of Region 7-AAAA and deny Cartersville its 25th region title.

After a reclassification cycle, it took two years for the Canes to get that 25th region championship and a shot at revenge against Heritage. They got the region title earlier this year and will get their chance at Heritage Tuesday, this time on an even bigger stage.

First pitch of the Class 4A state semifinal doubleheader is scheduled for 4 p.m. on that same field. The decisive Game 3 will be played at 5 p.m. Wednesday, if necessary.

Heritage is even better now than it was back in 2016, and the Generals have won an impressive 16 in a row and 32 of their last 33.

"We're a little bit familiar with them from being in the region together so long," Cartersville head coach Kyle Tucker said of Heritage. "A lot of those guys on that [2016] team were sophomores, and now they're two more years experienced, two more years of getting stronger and faster and better. So they're a great baseball team."

The Heritage-Cartersville clash is one most expected entering the postseason. Cartersville and Heritage are ranked second and third in the Class 4A rankings, with the order of the two depending on the poll, but both behind Blessed Trinity.

Heritage played its toughest competition in the non-region season, losing five of its first six games. However, the Generals blazed through its region schedule without losing a game. The only loss for Heritage since the slow start was mid-year to Gordon Lee, which is currently in the Class A-public semifinals.

Either the Canes or Generals will move on to face the winner of the Blessed Trinity-Jefferson semifinal. The GHSA announced last week that series will be played at State Mutual Stadium in Rome. Cartersville beat Pepperell back in March at the home of the Rome Braves.

This is the second year the GHSA has assigned teams a neutral location to play the championship series. If the Canes beat Heritage, they will play the doubleheader on May 21 and the "if" game on May 23.

"I think, if you said you are going to go play anywhere, our guys would be excited," Tucker said of the possibility of playing the state title game in Rome. "What better way to end their careers than to know we're going to play for it all and clinch that on our home field. But, obviously, we have business to take care of before all that can happen."

There are always pro scouts posted along the third-base line at Cartersville games to watch senior Anthony Seigler play, but expect to see even more Tuesday with likely first-round pick Cole Wilcox pitching for Heritage. The first at bat of the bottom of the first inning Tuesday will be must-see high school baseball, with Seigler expected to go in the first two rounds of the draft himself.

Both Seigler and Wilcox have had as good, if not better, postseasons than anyone in the state. Wilcox is hitting well over .400 for the season and is the Generals' top hitter and pitcher. Seigler, meanwhile, is 8-for-15 with 12 walks, four home runs and seven total extra-base hits in the postseason. Both have multi-home run series so far in the playoffs.

As a pitcher, Wilcox will throw low- to mid-90s at 6-foot-5 with a sharp slider. He is committed to Georgia, but he likely won't see Athens. He and Seigler were batterymates when the United States took gold in the U-18 Baseball World Cup in Canada.

"Good grief, he's a heck of baseball player," Tucker said of Wilcox. "Obviously, the attention he gets nationally is for what he does on the mound. But in the Georgia high school baseball community, everybody knows he's an all-around player."

Heritage is far more than just Wilcox, though. The Generals have an excellent No. 2 in Tripp Church, who sports a sub-1.00 ERA on the year. Junior Nolan Letzgus' ERA isn't far behind, and the pitching depth for Heritage is impressive.

The Generals also have a deep and potent lineup. Wilcox is the top hitter, but two Generals are hitting over .400 on the year and four more regulars are over .300.

"Obviously, everyone knows the strength of their pitching, not just their No. 1, and all the pitchers they run out there. And, behind that, they have a really good lineup," Tucker said. "They have a really athletic team, they play really good defense, they get on base, they run the bases, they steal bases. They do a really good job of situational hitting and scoring people when they have a chance, so they're what a team that's got 30 wins looks like."

Tucker added the bottom of the order has started several rallies during the postseason, and there won't be any breaks in the lineup for Cartersville pitchers.

The Canes' pitching could see some relief from injuries this series to help lengthen the bullpen, but while the injury situation is up in the air, it is a certainty Mason Barnett will start Game 1 opposite Wilcox.

Behind Barnett, the combination of Gage Morris, Cohen Wilbanks and Levi Ayers has been stellar in the playoffs through three rounds. The four pitchers available Tuesday who have pitched in the postseason already have combined to allow just three earned runs in 34 2/3 innings with a 1.10 WHIP and 42 strikeouts.

While the hitting for the Canes also has been strong, scoring 10 or more runs in eight of the last 12 games, Tucker is hoping the bats can stay hot despite not having played in five days.

It also is difficult to simulate in practice the kind of fastball the Canes will see in Game 1 against Wilcox. 

"The good thing about the way the playoffs are set up this year, it allows all of your pitchers to rest, but you do worry about your hitters," Tucker said. "Sometimes, you just want to keep playing, but we just try to stay as sharp as we can. obviously, we can't simulate what we'll see [from Wilcox Tuesday], but we'll prepare and, hopefully, find a way to get it done."

Of course, it wouldn't be a state semifinal game if the other team wasn't really good too, and Tucker said his team is excited about making it this far and hungry to get the opportunity to play in the state championship game.

"They're excited and I'm sure Heritage is too. And that's the way it ought to be when you get to the Final Four and are going to play a really good team," Tucker said. "It's a special opportunity and not everybody gets to experience this. It's a fleeting moment. The game will come and go quickly. The series will come and go quickly.

"I just don't want them to have any regrets, win or lose. I don't want them to say, 'Man, I wish I had done this more or practiced a little better there.' And I don't think they will. ... They've played really well in the tournament, have practiced really well, and that's all we can ask of them."