The Cartersville football team lost to Buford in the 2012 state semifinals. The Cartersville basketball team lost to Buford in the 2014 state quarterfinals.
This time, it is the baseball team that travels to Buford for the state semis Monday for a doubleheader, beginning at 4:30 p.m.
“They’re a complete team. They’re loaded,” Cartersville head coach Stuart Chester said. “They have a very good pitching staff. They’re very good defensively and they hit the ball very well. Without a doubt, this is the best team we’ve played.”
The Wolves went 29-3 this year and 19-2 in Region 7-AAA. They have scored an average of 9.7 runs per game while allowing just 1.6.
Buford won 2-of-3 games with White County during region play with wins of 10-0 and 7-0, and a loss by a score of 2-1. Cartersville swept White County in the first round of the state playoffs by scores of 3-2 and 14-3.
The Wolves also faced a Region 5-AAA opponent in the first round of states, North Murray. They dispatched North Murray in two games by a score of 14-0 in both games. Cartersville swept North Murray in the regular season, 11-1 and 3-0.
Chester believes this is the best opponent Cartersville has seen so far.
“[Buford is] a complete team, one through nine,” he said. “They have a complete pitching staff. They are very good behind the plate. They’re very well-coached. They’re the complete package.”
Buford is led by junior ace Jake Higginbotham, who committed to Clemson after his sophomore season.
The 6-foot, 150-pound left-handed pitcher went 9-1 as a sophomore with a 0.70 earned run average and recorded 94 strikeouts in 50 innings.
Higginbotham has continued his strong career this season, and against Pike County in the quarterfinals, he allowed one run on six hits with 14 strikeouts and only one walk in a complete game.
He has allowed just two runs in four complete-games this postseason.
Higginbotham has topped out at 89 miles per hour with his fastball and has a change-up, and a 12 o’clock-to-6 o’clock curveball, which is his out-pitch.
He also hits in the high .300’s and has been one of the team’s primary run producers this season.
Buford’s No. 2 pitcher is Connor Bennett, a 5-foot-8, right-handed senior committed to Georgia State. He tops out at 86 miles per hour and also has a change-up and curveball. He will likely play shortstop in Game 1 with Higginbotham on the mound.
In Game 2 against Pike County, Bennett threw a complete game in a 1-0 loss while striking out 13.
If the series goes three games, the game will be played Tuesday at 5:55 p.m. and the Canes will likely see Kevin Coulter, a 6-4, right-handed pitcher. The junior started Game 3 against Pike County and allowed one run, although the game was called after five innings due to rain.
Coulter tops out at 83 miles per hour and was not as dominant against the Pike County lineup as Higginbotham and Bennett. Coulter frequently worked himself into trouble and stranded eight Pike County baserunners. He allowed a total of four hits and four walks while striking out three, but is 10-0 on the season.
Buford’s pitchers will be throwing to junior standout Joey Bart. The highly touted catcher is committed to Georgia Tech.
Chester also is concerned about the lineup, which similar to Callaway, has nine quality hitters in the order.
“We have to throw strikes, we can’t walk people, can’t give them four outs,” He said. “If we go in and throw strikes, make plays, compete at the plate, we will make it an interesting series.”
Second baseman Austin Upshaw is one of the team’s top hitters and is committed to JUCO powerhouse Georgia Perimeter. Upshaw homered in Buford’s Game 3 win over Pike County.
The Wolves also have a talented sophomore outfielder in Nick Wilhite, who is a Division I prospect in his own right.
Senior outfielder Patrick Burnette and senior infielder Jake Mayo also have garnered Division I interest.
Cartersville is coming off an emotional three-game series against Callaway, which ended Thursday. However, this will be the first time Cartersville has had to go on the road this postseason.
“I worry about every round. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing at home or on the road. I worry about everything. Of course, I feel like we have an advantage when we’re playing at our place,” Chester said. “You have to remain cool, calm and collected because you realize you’re two games away from playing for a state championship.”