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High School | General | 3/8/2019

Buford shines at Showdown

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Sean Adams (Perfect Game)

HOOVER, Ala. – Even though it’s been more than a year a now, it remains difficult to process the sight of Stuart Chester wearing Buford (Ga.) Wolves Kelly Green, Vegas Gold and White and not the more familiar Cartersville (Ga.) Hurricanes Purple and Gold. Twenty-one years is a long time and the mind, being as fickle as it is, can play tricks.

But there he was in all his glory late Friday afternoon roaming the backfields at the Hoover Met Complex sporting a Kelly Green jacket and getting ready to lead his Wolves into play at the 7th annual Perfect Game High School Showdown. And hey, Buford head coach Stuart Chester was in a pretty high spirits.

“Things are going real well right now,” he told PG with a smile spread across his face and just moments after exchanging a firm handshake with a nosy old note-taker. “It’s not raining, so I guess all of us baseball guys can call it a good day.”

He paused for a moment, looked out at one of the turf fields at the Hoover Plex, and continued with his thought: “We’ve got teams here from all over the Southeast, but I’ll speak to Georgia: It’s been a struggle just to get reps in and  get all your team things in, defense and offense. Everybody’s fields have been wet, but hey, it’s not raining here so it’s a great day.”

If Chester was feeling good late afternoon on Friday he must have been feeling absolutely ecstatic when the day ended last night. The Wolves, No. 38 in PGHS’s Preseason National Top 50 Rankings coming into the Showdown, had, after all, taken down Cullman (Ala.), 2-1, and No. 19-ranked Georgia rival Parkview, 9-4, in games on Friday, a day after escaping No. 9 DeSoto Central out of Mississippi, 4-3.

The results from Thursday and Friday had Buford playing in the PGHS Showdown Red Division championship game against its Georgia Region 6 rival Loganville on Saturday, but that game won’t be played.

The two teams don’t want to face each other here before playing one another back home in region play when it really matters, and with that consideration, they will be crowned Red Division co-champions on Saturday. They will, however, play “consolation” games against other opponents in order to get their guaranteed fourth game in.

PG Preseason No. 2-ranked IMG Academy will square-off against No. 5 Blessed Trinity (Ga.) in a marquee match-up for the Blue Division championship at the Hoover Met Plex Stadium at approximately 11:30 a.m.

Chester came to Buford just last season after spending the previous 21 years at Cartersville High. During his tenure there, the Hurricanes played for eight Georgia state championships in a span of 13 years and won six of them, the most recent in 2013; he was inducted into the Georgia Dugout Club Hall of Fame in 2014.

“I’m a little more stable this year,” Chester said Friday. “Last year was a kind of a whirlwind but now I’ve got my feet on the ground. The (players) and myself and the staff, we’re adjusting to each other, but it’s still nothing like the 21 years at one place like it was at Cartersville. Buford has been very, very, very welcoming and given me the opportunity to get my feet in the position to help lead.”

Chester wasn’t about to call his first season at Buford “magical” but, doggone it, it did turn into something pretty special. The Wolves were a little slow out of the gate and brought a 5-6 record into last year’s PGHS Showdown, where they went 2-1 to even their record at 7-7.

Led by a strong group of seniors, including switch-hitting first baseman Noah Ledford (Georgia Southern), things picked up considerably in the weeks that followed.

Buford finished 10-2 in its region and ultimately took a 22-12 record in the Georgia Class 5A state tournament. It won its first three best-of-3 series with a combined record of 6-1 to move into the championship game where it fell to Loganville – the Region champion – 2 games-to-none. Yes, that’s the same Loganville outfit that is here this weekend.

“It was probably one of the more special years just in the fact that that the kids accepted me,” Chester said. “I felt like I was going into their program and they accepted me, and we got hot at the right time. … It was a great year just in the fact that I was accepted as their coach and the staff there accepted me; I don’t know if it was magical but it was very humbling.”

This year’s senior class at Buford looks about as sturdy as a second-year head coach could hope for. It is led by the 6-foot-3, 180-pound right-hander Ramsey David, an Auburn commit PG ranks as the No. 164 overall prospect in the class of 2019.

Senior top-500 left-handers Sean Adams (Georgia Southern) and Dylan McKinnis (Jackson State) provide even more intriguing depth to a pitching staff that doesn’t appear to have a weak link.

“To be honest with you, I think 90 percent of the game comes down to who’s on the mound,” Chester said. “Our pitching staff does have a lot of arms and we are deep, but again we’re down here … still on a pitch-count trying to prepare and stay healthy. … Having Ramsey David and Sean Adams back is huge and just with the experience they bring I think is invaluable.”

David, a 6-foot-3, 180-pound righty, allowed two earned runs on three hits while striking out seven in 5 1/3 innings in the win over DeSoto Central. Adams, a 6-foot, 170-pound lefty, worked five, five-hit, shutout innings in the win over Cullman, striking out two.

On the position-player side of the coin, the Wolves are led by senior outfielder Austin Turner, a top-500 prospect and an Auburn signee. Other notable seniors include catcher Patrick Walker (t-1000, Georgia Highlands), outfielder Christian Griffin (high-follow, Georgia Southwestern) and shortstop Brandon Jolliff (high-follow, Young Harris College).

It’s easy while looking at these seniors and a select group of pretty talented juniors to overlook another aspect of this Buford roster. The Wolves have three sophomores who Perfect Game thinks very highly of in its class of 2022 national rankings: No. 1 right-hander Dylan Lesko, No. 16 outfielder Riley Stanford and No. 103 catcher Jackson Gaspard; all three are uncommitted.

“Number-one, it’s gratifying that we have kids that are ranked with Perfect Game, which I think are the best scouting and the best numbers people in baseball,” Chester said. “For us to have two or three of the kids that are ranked that high from Perfect Game is an honor for us. To have those type caliber players, that gives you a foundation.”

The Wolves came into the Showdown this weekend with a 6-4 overall weekend, and it’s still early enough in the season that Chester and his staff are still adamant in their use of pitch-counts, doing everything they can to make sure his arms are healthy in May.

Chester brought his Cartersville teams to the PGHS Showdown the first five years it was held and is now 2-for-2 with his Buford teams. There is no bigger fan of the event and while he wishes it could be held a little bit later on the calendar he also understands that’s impossible for the Georgia schools because they’ll be starting regional play here pretty quick.

“We’re going to be playing four games in 36 hours and we’re going to stick to our pitch counts,” he said, “but the positive to that is we’re going to get a lot of kids in that probably wouldn’t have gotten as much time on the mound if we weren’t a part of this.”

Everybody’s goal is to win the tournament, Chester acknowledged, and now that the Wolves and the Red Devils had been named co-champs, you can say “mission accomplished.” But in reality, the Wolves goal was to come here as a team and then leave as a better team.

If you start looking at your won-loss record at the event, Chester warned, you might end up feeling kind of down and depressed. The fact is, he said, if you win one game here you’re doing pretty well, if you win two it’s pretty darn good and if you win three, welcome to gold elite status; the Wolves are gold elite.

“We try to put together the most adverse schedule we can have,” Chester said. “Just coming down here we’re probably seeing some of the better baseball in the whole southeastern part of the country, and then our out-of-region with the Mill Creeks and the Parkviews, Etowah and those guys, we try to put our kids in the worst situations they can be in.”

Or the best, depending on point-of-view. And while Chester has nothing but fond memories from the 21 years he spent at Cartersville, he feels like he’s in a pretty good place right now, too.

“Buford is an unbelievable place,” he told PG. “They’ve been very supportive, they open every door that we need as a baseball program. They give every kid regardless if it’s the arts, the academics or the athletics, if they need something to be successful they’re going to be given that opportunity.”

The most amazing thing about Buford, in Chester’s opinion, anyway, is that every sports breaks down on family. When he first got to the school in the fall of 2017 he remembers thinking, we’ve got to break this thing down, how are we going to break it down?

“Well, I was told how we were going to break it down because it’s family,” he told PG. “Those three freshman, they might be labeled as freshman just because of grade but I promise you, we really don’t have that senior-freshman distinction between classes. Everybody pulls for everybody.”

Stuart Chester is, indeed, in a good place. And he now, in addition to all those state championships, he can add a PG High School Showdown co-championship to his resume; he won’t be satisfied until he has one all his own.

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