CONYERS -- For the first time in the playoffs, the opposing dugout will feature a familiar face.
When Heritage takes the field to the voice of Patriots personal address announcer Woody Woodward today at 4 p.m., taking a long, hard look at them will be the Rebels of Effingham County, who challenged the Patriots in a non-region affair in early March.
The game ended with a 3-2 victory in favor of the Rebels with today's projected Game 2 starter, Merritt Evans awarded the victory on the mound following a 6-hit, 2-run performance in six innings of work. The Patriots, on the other hand, used all four of its top arms in the game - Griffin Holcombe (2 IP), Darryl Buggs (2 IP), Nick Watson-Garcia (1 IP) and Nolan Woodward (1 IP).
Woodward was handed the loss after allowing three runs and four hits. The trio of Holcombe, Buggs and Watson-Garcia combined to throw six innings of 2-hit, no-run ball without walking a batter.
While the familiarity is there, Heritage head coach Shane Ramsey wasn't ready to read into an early March game that featured an 11 a.m. first pitch at a neutral site in Augusta.
"Is there some familiarity with the both of us? Yes," Ramsey said. "When we played them, it was before both of us got into region play and we were kind of feeling ourselves out. We're both playing totally different now. They're really good and we've got to play our best to beat them."
The Rebels' roster Ramsey is expecting to see features a hot-hitting offense and a pitching staff that pounds the strike zone. Winners of 13 games in a row, including a quarterfinals sweep of then No. 1 ranked Winder-Barrow, the Rebels boast a team .332 batting average and a pitching staff ERA of 2.71.
The Heritage pitching staff will be tasked with slowing down shortstop Christian Campbell, who has batted 11-for-22 in the playoffs (.500) with seven RBI. Outfielder JR Lonon, who struggled in the first two rounds of the playoffs with a 1-for-7 start, came up big for the Rebels against Winder-Barrow, finishing the series 4-for-6 with two RBI.
Jerid Stokes enters action today riding a 10-game hit streak and was responsible for two of the three RBI in a 3-2 Game 1 victory over Winder-Barrow.
"They are as good as any lineup we've faced all year," Ramsey said. "They are really similar to us in that they're aggressive. They're not afraid to bunt at any time and they're not afraid to run. When you get that type of lineup, it's hard to prepare for because you know that you have to make your pitch. And when the ball is hit, you have to be able to make the play. They put pressure on you a lot and we know that."
The Rebels' pitching staff is led by senior Ethan Johnson and junior Evans, who are responsible for 142 1/3 of their 214 1/3 innings pitched this season. Johnson, the Rebels' projected Game 1 starter, is 5-0 on the season with a 1.80 ERA while Evans is 7-1 with a 1.95 ERA.
Only two pitchers not named Johnson and Evans have pitched thus far in the playoffs for the Rebels. Ryan Harley tossed 2 1/3 innings of 5-hit, no-run ball in Game 1 against Lakeside in Round 1 before Garrett Milner tossed one inning of 1-run ball in Game 2 against Valdosta in the second round.
Avery Elenbass, the Rebels' fourth option, last pitched an inning against Brunswick on April 12.
Ready to counteract the Rebels' attack is a Patriots' offense that has a featured its fair share of changes throughout the playoffs. Junior Christian Davis, who made his season debut against Coffee in Round 2, has since been moved to the No. 2 spot in the lineup while Watson-Garcia has been moved up to the No. 3 hole.
"I tell them all the time to be comfortable moving around some," Ramsey said. "My guys are always flexible with that. We've gone through stages this year where the top has been hot. Then we went through a phase where the middle of the lineup was hot and also a phase where the bottom has been hot. So they're confident with me shuffling them some."
Buggs will enter play with a 10-game hit streak and during that run, has batted .531 (17-for-32). Junior Cole Smith increased his hit streak to 11 games last week against Allatoona and has five multi-hit performances and eight RBI in his run.
On the mound, the Patriots will run out the duo of Holcombe and Watson-Garcia to start Game 1 and 2, respectively. Watson-Garcia tossed his fifth straight 7-inning game as a starter last week and lowered his ERA to 1.34 on the season.
Bullpen specialist Buggs will enter play today sporting a 0.82 ERA in 25 2/3 innings of work and won both games on the mound in relief for the Patriots against Allatoona.
Tuesday will mark the fourth straight playoff series that the Patriots have played at home this season and sixth straight dating back to 2018. Ramsey said the Patriots' home field advantage has done nothing but increase thanks to a rowdy student section that has continued to grow in numbers with each passing week.
"It's been great," Ramsey said. "They fun part about it is that our entire school has gotten involved with it. Our student section has been raucous and has been great. They get to be apart of it. It's neat to go down the hallway and have people say that they're excited for you and can't wait until we play again."
It's been great for our guys, it's been great for our team. Yes, we don't have to travel, which is great. But for our whole school to get involved has been even better."
Having coached both softball and baseball for the last decade, Ramsey said he has thought a lot about what a trip to the Final Four would feel like for both he and one of his teams.
"I think back to the teams that I've had over the years," Ramsey said. "It's how the little things matter. It's the breaks you get. It's how things just go your way. (This year), it's been the little things and it's been different kids stepping up. Nolan's play at first base last Wednesday was a prime example. There's no way that he should have made that play, but he did. To see what that meant by making that play and what can happen when you get breaks, you can go a long way."
I'm excited about it, but we want to go further. To finally get here, we can't wait to play. We want to go in and play well and see if we can give ourselves a chance to play next week."
In order to knock off Effingham County, Ramsey said a compete team effort in all three phases of the game will be needed.
"We've got to hit on all phases," Ramsey said. "We've got to come in and pound the strike zone, we've got play great defense and we've got to get hits with runners in scoring position. We have to play the best that we have all year and I believe that we will. I believe in my guys. If we do that, we're going to give ourselves to play next week."