Kevin Dawkins still remembers the Archer series.
It was in the middle of last season, after Rockdale County had swept Shiloh in convincing fashion, when the Bulldogs faced Archer in a three-game series.
Rockdale had a chance to climb the Region 8-AAAAAAA ladder while taking some real momentum into the following week’s two-game set against rival Heritage.
Rockdale lost the first game against Archer 7-6 — six errors.
Then, after taking the second game, Rockdale dropped the series finale — five errors.
“We won only one out of that series when we should have won all three,” Dawkins recalled. “We led in every single game. The whole crux of our entire season was errors. Errors really killed us and took us out of a lot of ball games. So it left a bitter taste in these guys’ mouths.”
Rockdale, which finished 15-17 last year, still managed to finish fourth in Region 8-AAAAAAA and slip into the playoffs, where the Bulldogs lost to eventual state champion Parkview.
Fixing defensive miscues was chief among Rockdale’s offseason priority list, just above replacing one of the top catchers in the state, Brandon Lawrence, who transferred following his sophomore season with the Bulldogs.
Lawrence hit .287 last season and tied for the team lead with two home runs as Rockdale’s primary catcher. He was also expected to chip in on the mound after sporting a 2.80 ERA in 20 innings of relief a year ago.
Instead, it will be Rockdale’s do-it-all senior Christien West behind the plate.
“He’s an integral part of the team; he anchors our offense,” Dawkins said. “We’re asking him to make a switch his year to behind the plate, where he really served in a backup role last year because we had Brandon Lawrence. With Brandon Lawrence being gone and transferring, he’s been asked during his senior year to step up and really take over as that primary catcher, as well as mentor one of our younger catchers.”
West finished his junior year with a gaudy .379 batting average, chipping in a pair of homers and 27 RBIs.
On the mound, Rockdale must replace Owen Simonds, whose 1.29 ERA was tied for best in the area last year. Simonds also had 63 strikeouts in 64 2/3 innings, second only to Heritage’s Griffin Holcombe (66).
Dawkins said junior Ian Alonzo is the early favorite to replace Simonds on the mound.
“He is definitely going to come in and take over that No. 1 role. He stepped up for us huge last year,” Dawkins said. “I think him being able to shut down Grayson at the end of the season, even though we didn’t come out on the winning side of that, being able to shut down a team like Grayson for six-plus innings, they just didn’t have an answer for him and he kind of ran out of gas there at the end. That was his moment to show he can step up and take over, and he has improved a lot.”
Alonzo’s fastball touches 90 miles per hour, and he also has exemplary command and a great changeup, Dawkins said.
After Alonzo will be Nicolas Osorio, Jaylon Teague and Darius Williams.
Dawkins said he is especially excited to see Teague throw because the Bulldogs’ senior has been plagued by injuries throughout his high school career.
Senior Jordan Rome moved to the outfield last season but will return to his natural middle infield spot after shortstop Cody Powell and second baseman Christian Wilkinson graduated.
A couple of freshmen in Ian Everette and Kenneth Raggs will compete for the other spot.
“Just by watching in the fall, I think with some practice and some reps they can step in and contribute as freshmen,” Dawkins said. “There’s going to be a lot put on their plate, so we’re going to see very early on if they’re going to be able to handle it. I do feel confident in transitioning from losing both our middle infielders to this year. It’s going to be a smooth transition.”
Rockdale’s most experience lies in its corner infielders, with senior Darius Williams manning third base and junior Corbin Shaw returning at first base.
As a sophomore, Shaw led the team in batting average (.380) and RBIs (32) while clubbing two home runs of his own.
“With it being Darius’ senior year, I expect a big senior year. And I expect a big junior year out of Corbin Shaw, because this year is crucial for him,” Dawkins said. “He just got back from Arizona from the Under Armour All-American tryouts, so I think if he can have a good year, he’ll continue to get more looks.”
Williams is one of eight seniors for Rockdale.
Junior Jabari Simmons, senior Nicolas Osorio and Teague will fill out the outfield.
“Jaylon Teague and Nick Osorio are going to be our corner guys right now,” Dawkins said. “If we were to start today, they would be our corner guys. They’re going to be right there in the middle of our lineup. They’re big, powerful guys that have got good arms. They’re going to be able to hit 5-6-7 in the lineup and achor the lineup along with Christien, Darius and Corbin. Jabari Simmons is our speed guy, so we’re going to ask him to take over center field; that’s his natural position.”
Rockdale also invested in its pitching staff by bringing in pitching coach Aaron Barfield, who graduated from Rockdale in 2012 before playing at Young Harris College.
While at Rockdale, Barfield set the school record for strikeouts in a seven-inning game with 17.
“He brings a wealth of knowledge to the game, especially in the aspect of pitching,” Dawkins said. “So that’s been a huge weight off my shoulders, because in the past I’ve handled the pitch-calling duties. So now that I can hand that to him and he knows what he’s doing and I trust him, it allows me to focus on other aspects of the game.”