CONYERS -- To be the best, one must beat the best.
That will be the feeling floating around Heritage's dugout Wednesday evening when they take the field against Pope in the Class AAAAAA state championship series at State Mutual Stadium in Rome.
The Patriots will play in their first state championship series since 2007. The Greyhounds, on the other hand, will play for their third straight state championship after winning in both 2017 and 2018. In 2016, the Greyhounds finished as state runner-ups.
Heritage head coach Shane Ramsey, who is set to coach in his first-ever state championship series, said his team knows what to expect against the Greyhounds.
"When you put on that Pope jersey, there's a winning tradition," Ramsey said. "The expectation is, 'we're Pope and we're supposed to win.' They've always had a good recipe for success because they're strong in all three phases. They pitch it well, they play great defense and they swing the bat well. They know our tendencies and we know their tendencies. So it's who goes in and makes the least amount of mistakes, throws strikes, plays good defense and gets timely hits with who's going to win this series."
The Patriots and Greyhounds have taken two very different roads to the state championship series.
Two sweeps and two Game 3 victories were needed for the Patriots to reach the finals while the Greyhounds have needed Game 3 victories in every round this season. The Greyhounds have lost Game 1 twice before rallying with two straight victories in Round 1 against Creekview and in Round 3 against Lee County.
A Game 1 loss to Coffee nearly sent the Patriots home in Round 2, but looking back, Ramsey called the loss a game changer.
"The best thing that happened to us, in my opinion, was losing to Coffee in Game 1," Ramsey said. "You never want to say, 'let's lose one,' but what it showed us is that we can fight. The last few years, when we would lose a Game 1, we didn't have that same fight or belief that we could win. It kind of changed this year. We feel like we can go into any game and win."
The Patriots' offense will be tasked with hitting against Max Pralgo in Game 1 and Gage Vailes in Game 2. Reid Robertson, who has pitched in each of the Greyhounds' four Game 3s, will likely take the mound if the series is pushed to Thursday.
"Pralgo is their No. 1," Ramsey said. "He's a right-hander and he's 83-85. Good fastball, good curveball. Vailes is a right-hander that throws in the upper 80s. 88-92. Good arm action. Good run on his fastball. He's going to Kennesaw State. They have a lefty, Robertson, who is going to Dallas Baptist. Great pitcher. He's thrown really well in the playoffs. They're really good. Best team we will have played all year."
Looking to counter attack a solid Greyhounds pitching staff will be the hot-hitting offense the Patriots currently supply. After run-ruling Effingham County in Game 3 last week, 12-1, Ramsey called it his team's best overall performance of the season.
"I thought Game 3 was the best game we've played as a group, in all three phases, all year," Ramsey said. "It was good to see because you didn't know how they were going to respond with a very good team in Game 3. To see how aggressive they were, it was good. I like where we're at right now. We have to go out and do it, but I like where we're at right now."
Darryl Buggs will carry a 13-game hit streak into Wednesday's series. In his streak, Buggs has recorded 10 multi-hit games and boasts a .560 average (23-for-41).
On the mound, the Patriots will have a well-rested staff comprised of Griffin Holcombe, Nick Watson-Garcia, Nolan Woodward and Darryl Buggs ready at their disposal. Holcombe improved to 9-1 on the season last week and needed only 66 pitches to toss 6 2/3 innings of 5-hit, 1-run ball.
Watson-Garcia enters play having thrown only 42 pitches in his Game 2 start last week. While it wasn't the senior's strongest start of the season after allowing five runs in 2 2/3 innings of work, Ramsey said he expects to see a re-energized right-hander when the takes the mound for Game 2.
"He wasn't happy at all," Ramsey said of Watson-Garcia. "He's a kid that has fought all year and competes extremely well. I know that when he takes the ball for Game 2, he's going to give us everything that he's got and will be better than he was last week. I also like the fact that he's done a great job of this this year. He fights through adversity and doesn't dwell on it. He moves forward and I expect him to come in and throw well."
With his pitchers well rested heading into the series, Ramsey said it's a great feeling to have with all things considered.
"This is the most innings that any of mine have pitched," Ramsey said. "So when that happened last week, it did help us. We've been able to stay sharp and since we didn't have to throw a lot of pitches for any of them last week, you go into it saying that there's no tomorrow. We feel rested and feel good. The high school season is over after this week, so we've got all offseason to rest and re-cooperate."
Playing in a large ball park, the home of the Rome Braves, Ramsey doesn't expect that to be a negative to his team's success. The Patriots challenged previously No. 1 ranked Winder-Barrow at Coolray Field, the home of the Gwinnett Stripers, earlier this season.
"We're going to be playing a great opponent, but it helped playing Winder-Barrow at Coolray," Ramsey said. "It allowed us to see a great opponent in that type of atmosphere. We don't get to play in those big stadiums all the time. I don't see that being an issue with us. I think it helps us."
With a chance to bring Heritage its first-ever baseball state championship, playing at their best will be needed in order to take down Pope.
"We feel like we're good enough to win this, but we have to go out and do it," Ramsey said. "I've liked how the guys have handeled this playoff run. It was them saying, 'we're not going to make it bigger than it is.' We're getting a chance to play for a state title, but at the same point, they're not tight. I think we're going to be loose and ready to play."