CONYERS -- The moment was never too big for Griffin Holcombe in 2019.
From the first time the senior right-hander took the mound against Stockbridge in his first start, to his last against Pope in Game 1 of the Class AAAAAA state championship, Holcombe left most of his opposing hitters with little to nothing to cheer about.
Already established as the Patriots’ ace heading into the season, Holcombe ramped up his game to a level he had never before reached, one based on strength and pitch location.
“I definitely did more in the offseason before this past season that I had in the past,” Holcombe said. “I got stronger and got my velocity to sit consistently in the upper 80s. I think it was the added strength that helped me a lot.”
After mowing down his competition in starts against Stockbridge, Dacula, Lakeside, Evans and Grovetown — a stretch that saw the senior pitch his way to a 1.56 ERA and a 6-0 record — Holcombe’s game was taken to an all-time high on an April 1 start at Greenbrier.
Facing off against UGA signee and travel ball teammate Bryce Melear, Holcombe tossed eight innings of 1-hit, shutout ball and struck out nine en route to a 1-0 victory. The dominant performance for the Coastal Carolina signee lowered his season ERA to 1.24.
By the start of the Class AAAAAA state playoffs, Holcombe had lowered his ERA even further, reaching a 1.08 clip in 52 innings of work. Seven more innings of shutout ball against Glynn Academy in Round 1 of the playoffs lowered his ERA to 0.95 and ran his scoreless innings streak to 22.
Holcombe’s lone slip up, a 5-2 defeat in Game 1 against Coffee County in which the senior was handed the loss after allowing five runs (one earned), ended his streak of nine victories in a row to start the season.
But by the state semifinals against Effingham County, Holcombe was back to his winning ways when it mattered the most, defeating the Rebels with 6 2/3 innings of 1-run ball.
WIth only one start remaining in his high school career, Holcombe took the mound at State Mutual Stadium in Rome to face the two-time defending state champions, the Pope Greyhounds.
Entering the game having allowed only one run in the first inning all season, Holcombe was tagged for two in the first against Pope.
“I always have said that the first inning is the hardest inning of any game,” Holcombe said. “Based off not knowing how their lineup is. Even if you have a scouting report, that scouting report might not be right. The first inning is always just figuring them out and seeing what they hit, who can hit and what’s the best pitches to be throwing at what time.”
After getting out of the inning without further damage, Holcombe proved to the Greyhounds why his previous 2019 opponents feared him from the beginning. Holcombe tossed the final six innings of the game without allowing a run en route to a 7-2 victory, his 11th and final of the season.
With only one blemish on his record, Holcbome said it was easy to move past that after the Patriots’ eventual state championship victory in Game 3.
“It was upsetting at first, but to be a state champion, I can’t really complain with one loss,” Holcombe said jokingly.
Finishing the season with a 1.51 ERA and a career-high 96 strikeouts, Holcombe chalked most of his success to his ability to throw off-speed pitches for strikes and not having rely on his fastball as much as previous years.
“It was definitely all about locating pitches this year and a lot more off-speed pitches,” Holcombe said. “In the past, I would throw a lot more fastballs and teams were timing it up a little better this year. But my off-speed was really good. I got to where I could locate that really well and worked on that a lot in the bullpens between starts. I think that was what really made the difference.”
Pitching in all four years at Heritage, Holcbome finishes his career with a sub-3.00 ERA and more than 200 strikeouts. In his final two seasons, Holcombe pitched his way to an 18-4 record and paired that up with 162 punchouts.
“I loved that,” Holcombe said of his No. 1 starter role. “I like starting off the series in Game 1s. I don’t really get nervous or intimidated at all. I get the urge to go and pitch and I think all of the guys got that same feeling when I was on the mound.”
While Holcombe manned his starting spot as the Patriots right fielder for the deciding Game 3 victory over Pope, the program’s first-ever state championship, Holcombe said a vision that he and his teammates had of winning it all their senior year actually came true.
“The crazy thing is, our whole high school year, we all said we were going to win state our senior year. We did it and that’s pretty crazy. I thought about the possibility of winning state, but it’s crazy that it actually happened. It still doesn’t feel real sometimes. I sit back and am like, ‘wow, we actually did win state.’”
Holcombe said that to win it with a group of friends that he’s had dating back to his elementary school days made it that much more sweet.
“I went through elementary school with most of them,” Holcombe said. “And I didn’t realize that all of us have grown up in the Rockdale school system. We all grew up in the same area, which is amazing.”
And having played with many different players over the course of his four years at Heritage, having the support of the community during the run was one of the things he said he will cherish the most.
“It didn’t really hit that we were the first team to do it until afterwards,” Holcombe said. “All of the alumni’s of Heritage started texting us and posting stuff. We didn’t realize how big of a deal it was to all of them that we actually did it. The support that we received was awesome.”
With his high school career officially in the books, Holcombe has turned his attention to Coastal Carolina, where he is soon to begin his career. With hopes of competing for time on the mound as a freshman, Holcombe said that is definitely a possibility.
“I’m really excited about it,” Holcombe said. “I’m ready to start working out and getting work done with them. I think it will be really fun and a great experience. I definitely can compete for a spot. Whether it’s in relief or starting. I just have to see how it all works out.”