Excel returns to varsity schedule

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It has been awhile since Excel Christian Academy has had a varsity baseball team playing a region schedule.

However, the Eagles are back after a three-year absence from varsity baseball and will be playing a full region schedule this season, beginning Tuesday at Mount Paran.

“The past couple of years, we were looking to build for the future. Last year, we built the foundation,” Excel first-year head coach Mike Cuomo said. “We have a very talented ninth-grade class. I think those ninth-graders are really going to carry us deep in the region schedule this year. The next couple of years, we’re looking toward a great future at Excel as those ninth-graders grow and become mature playing a full varsity schedule.”

Excel went 3-3 in varsity games last season and 11-7 in its JV schedule.

It will not only be the first full varsity season for the players on the team, but Cuomo will take over the program with experience as a travel ball coach.

“At the high school level, my experience has been as a community coach and helping develop the program here at Excel. Prior to that, my experience has been in travel ball, high-level AAU and East Cobb travel teams,” Cuomo said. “I have minimal experience as a head coach. I guess this and one more time will make twice. But I’m surrounded by a great staff, and I think the most important thing with any leader is surrounding himself with people who are as good or better than him. I have a fantastic assistant coaching staff that I really think the guys are taking to.”

Those assistants include a pair of former minor league players.

“We have Will Scott. He has played some AAA ball. He is still trying to get back into the Frontier League. We have a young man by the name of Jean Gonzalez. Both of those guys have played at the minor league level, and are now coaching in the East Cobb organization,” Cuomo said of his coaching staff. “Then there’s a local man from Cartersville who’s sons have played — one at Shorter and one at Armstrong Atlantic — Tommy Carnes. Both his boys went to Cartersville. So with those three men and me as the administrator, if you will, my staff is the key to this team’s development. My staff has really related to these guys. They’re 23-, 24-year-old kids. They’re very exciting and bring a lot of zeal.”

With the return of a region schedule, Excel will play in the competitive Region 6A-A. Two of the teams in the region, Walker and King’s Ridge, each have won two state championships since 2001. The varsity competition will be a major step up in competition for the ninth-graders who did not play any varsity games last season.

“It’s very tough,” Cuomo said of Excel’s region. “King’s Ridge has taken it home a couple of years. Mount Paran is always tough. Mount Paran, King’s Ridge, Walker, it’s a tough region.

“Our youth and our ability to face this caliber and quality of pitching at the varsity level is going to be something that we’re going to have to grow through as the year evolves. We’re not used to seeing this kind of pitching.”

Excel has some quality pitchers of its own, though, as it returns junior Joseph Cuomo, freshman Wyatt Karlovich and freshman Jordan Wilkie. Cuomo held a 1.64 ERA last season in 25 2/3 innings with 31 strikeouts. Karlovich and Wilkie, meanwhile, each had sub-3.00 ERAs on the JV last year as eighth-graders.

“[Joseph Cuomo] is a very smart player, solid East Cobb player. He played for the Astros last year. He’s going to anchor our pitching staff,” Mike Cuomo said. “I think him and Wyatt Karlovich and Jordan Wilkie will also see a lot of pitching time. They’ll be our starting rotation primarily. All three of them have significant high-level travel experience. ... We’re expecting great things from all three of them.”

Marco Haro, Levi Blackwell and Blane Belisario will add depth to the pitching staff, which, combined with the defense, will be the strength of the Eagles this season, according to Cuomo.

“I think, defensively, we’re going to be really solid,” he said. “We are going to be a defensively sound team. We are going to make plays as best we possibly can. We expect great things from our defense. With defense and our sound pitching, we’re going to compete, even in this very tough region.”

Cuomo said hitting is one area Excel will have to work through as the season progresses.

“We have a couple of hitters. If we can just be diligent at the plate, follow the plan, I think that we can make a difference,” Cuomo said. “But at the same time, I think that defense and pitching are going to be our strengths.”

Joseph Cuomo and Jordan Wilkie will play shortstop when they are not on the mound and both will be important bats in the lineup. Blackwell will play second base to round out the middle of the infield. Michael Duncan and Dylan Drew are competing for the spot at catcher, while Karlovich will start the season at third base and Haro will play first.

In the outfield, Belisario and Trace Still will man the corners, while Darius Thrower will play center field.

“[Thrower] didn’t play with us last year, but of course, he’s our stud shooter on the basketball team and he played a couple of years ago,” Cuomo said. “He’s got a lot of talent, and he’s going to anchor the outfield for us. He’s just a very, very athletic kid. He’s a smart ballplayer, hasn’t played a lot of baseball, but he’s really coming around with his bat. In the field, he’s just lightning fast and can track a ball. So, hopefully, we’re going to get a lot of good innings out of Darius over there.”

Thrower is one of two seniors, and the Eagles have seven freshmen on their 15-man roster. As a result, Cuomo said it will be incumbent on the junior class to provide leadership.

“All the ninth-graders, save one, the other six guys have been with us as eighth-graders last year. And of course, with Joseph, Michael and Dylan, we’ve built a good foundation,” Cuomo said. “They’re leaders. They understand what it’s like to work hard and they know what they’re facing entering a region schedule.”

With 16 players, Cuomo knows it will be important to build depth among the pitching staff.

“I think the most important thing we do is we’re going to use our guys prudently on the mound,” Cuomo said. “I think depth is going to be important for us, or lack thereof with a 15-man roster. But at the same time, if we use them prudently and keep them healthy, we should be able to survive the season.”