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High School  | General  | 2/26/2020

HoCo braces for a Showdown

Jeff Dahn     
Photo: Jaden Woods (Nikki Hughes, Houston Co. Baseball)

2020 High School Baseball Preview Index

The 2020 calendar has yet to flip over into March, but at the high school programs fortunate to claim addresses in the warm-weather regions of the country, it’s already go-time.

At these schools, rosters have been cemented, programs have been printed, line-up cards have been filled out, first-pitches have been thrown and games have been played – heck, many lucky fans have probably already wolfed down a hot dog or two.

It’s a glorious time, as is the beginning of every new season. And it’s also a time when coaches begin to get a real feel for the makeup of their ballclubs, especially if the roster is relatively young and both internal and external expectations are at their highest.

That is certainly the scenario head coach Matt Hopkins and his Houston County Bears are facing at the advent of the 2020 campaign. Houston County HS, located in Warner Robins, Ga., won four of the first six games it played through Monday, providing a nice little dose of early season momentum.

They’ll need it. Houston County is one of 32 teams from the Perfect Game High School Florida and Southeast Regions that will compete at the 8th annual PG High School Showdown March 5-7 at the Hoover Met Complex in Hoover, Ala.

The Bears are also one of eight teams in the field that landed in the PG HS Preseason Top 50 National Rankings, coming in at No. 37. They will be joined by No. 3 DeSoto Central (Miss.), No. 8 Bob Jones (Ala.), No. 10 Parkview (Ga.), No. 22 Westminster Christian (Fla.), No. 31 Buford (Ga.), No. 32 Hoover (Ala.) and No. 44 Smiths Station (Ala.).

The 2020 season is Hopkins’ second as the head coach at Houston County but it is his 12th year at the school – he was an assistant coach to former head coach Jason Brett before taking over the top job last season.

The program enjoyed a lot of success during Brett’s nine-year tenure, a run that included Georgia Class 5A state championships in 2014 (38-8 overall record) and 2016 (30-9). The Bears also reached the Class 6A state semifinals in 2018 (28-10) and finished 24-12 after a loss in 6A quarterfinals last season.

“The community’s good, for one thing; it’s just a great place for baseball,” Hopkins said while speaking with PG over the phone this week. “It’s an area that’s hungry for baseball where our school is. … To be honest, I’m a little bit of a country boy and it’s a got a little bit of a country-boy feel to it, but we’re still in a big enough area to where you’re close to the city, as well.”

Houston County will go into next week’s PG HS Showdown with only four seniors on its roster, making it one of the youngest teams in the field.

It’s a quartet led by left-hander/outfielder Jaden Woods, a Georgia signee ranked the No. 408 overall prospect in the national class of 2020 and No. 36 in talent-laden Georgia. Infielder/outfielder Jacob Profit is a three-year varsity starter who has signed with Reinhardt University in Waleska, Ga., and is ranked as the No. 200 overall prospect in the state. Infielder Ethan Morgan and catcher/utility Jeremy White are the other seniors expected to contribute.

Interestingly, perhaps, Hopkins feels like having one small group of seniors could very well work to this team’s  advantage as the season progresses. There they are, the four of them, ready to assume a larger leadership role than otherwise might be asked of them, and that just might be a good thing.

“Maybe if you have 10 to 15 sometimes you’ll have four different groups that are trying to pull in four different directions,” he said. “The good thing about this group is that they’ve played together for years and they’re friends, so with these four seniors I’m just kind of asking them to lead from the front.

“They’re doing multiple jobs … and they’re able to do every little tier of what we’d expect as far as leadership and demonstrating what is expected from each role on the team,” he continued. “They’ve done a great job of that so far.”

But a lot of the Bears’ leadership is going to have to be provided by its underclassmen, particularly those in a junior class (2021 grads) that oozes with talent and potential.

Brodie Chestnutt and Coleman Willis, both listed as right-handed pitchers/corner-infielders, and outfielder Treyson Hughes are at the forefront. Chestnutt is a Florida State commit ranked No. 75 nationally and No. 8 in Georgia; Willis, ranked Nos. 178/15, has committed to Georgia; Hughes, a West Virginia commit, comes in at Nos. 293/29.

Uncommitted utility/infielder Trent Ringer is another highly regarded junior ranked No. 179 in Georgia. The sophomore class (2022) is led by outfielder/first baseman/right-hander Gage Harrelson, an uncommitted top-500 prospect who was the MV Player at last summer’s PG BCS 15u National Championship in Fort Myers, Fla., while playing with Warner Robins-based 5 Star Baseball.

And then there are the two freshman, both of whom are starting for Hopkins this season. Outfielder Drew Burress, an alumnus of the 2019 PG 14u Select Baseball Festival, is already regarded as elite – he is ranked No. 13 overall (No. 4 Georgia) in the class of 2023. Right-hander/corner-infielder Andrew Dunford ranks Nos. 205/21.

Hopkins told PG that the one thing that the school is blessed with is that it has a lot kids who just love to play baseball and they continue to play it throughout the summer. Many of them play their summer and fall ball with the 5 Star program, one of the country’s most elite organizations that was founded by and is still owned by Andy Burress, Drew Burress’ father.

“I tell people all the time that I’m not really sure how good of a coach I am because these kids are getting so much experience whether I’m working with them or not,” Hopkins said. “They’ve seen a lot – they’ve been around the block – and that’s really paid off for us this year big-time.

“These kids, you’ve got to think, are logging an extra 45 games a year in most cases, which is just speeding up the process.”

When Hopkins brought this team together for the first time in the preseason, he talked to the players about what he and his staff expect of them and what they’ll be looking for. They also addressed the Bears’ schedule and how there are no cupcakes on it because, simply put, there are very few cupcake programs in an area southeast of Atlanta on I-75.

“That’s what we tell them, when you come here, expect to compete, expect to play a tough schedule because that’s what it’s going to take to push us over the edge,” Hopkins said. “We figured that out right before we went on that run there (starting in ’14) and we started making our schedule tougher at the front end and then we got better on the back end every year.”

And with that said, this seems like an ideal time to address Houston County’s involvement with the PG HS Showdown, which it will be competing at for a fifth straight year in a little more than a week.

It’s been a bit of a mixed-bag, to be sure. The Bears first took part in the 2016 showdown and won only one of their four games, results that would have been little more than a minor footnote except for two interesting items.

The first is, Houston Country quickly righted the ship after making the short trip home (the event was held in Emerson, Ga., that year) and went on to win the Georgia Class 5A state championship, their second in three years.

The second item centered on the Bears’ roster. Among those occupying a spot was junior left-hander DL Hall, a 2016 PG All-American who the Orioles selected with the No. 21 overall pick of the first round in the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft.

It also included a top-500 right-hander/third baseman by the name of Jake Fromm, who ultimately decided to play football at the University of Georgia. Fromm completed his junior season in 2019 and has declared for the 2020 NFL Draft.

The Bears returned to the Showdown in 2017 and were winless in four games, putting their two-year record at 1-7. The tables turned in 2018 when they reached the championship game with a 3-0 record only to be beaten by Montverde Academy (Fla.); Woods and Profit both played in that game as sophomores.

HoCo struggled again last year when the event was held in Hoover for the first time, finishing 1-3, but the whole PG HS Showdown experience continues to be a rewarding one.

“We love it because it does expose (the players) to so much,” Hopkins said. “I love how it gets exposure for a lot of our kids who might not play high-level travel ball. It gives them a chance to experience a little bit of that life because it’s similar to what you would experience in that high-level travel.”

The HoCo coaching staff tells its players that the PG HS Showdown should be treated as a business trip, but they do so while also not wanting to squelch their youthful enthusiasm for the event.

The Showdown annually puts the talents of dozens of the most highly ranked prep prospects from the Southeast on display and Hopkins knows many of his top players have befriended them through their summer ball associations.

And this year is certainly no exception. Third basemen Jordan Walker from Decatur HS in Georgia and Blaze Jordan from DeSoto Central HS in Mississippi are the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked prospects, respectively, in the 2020 class.

Additionally, the No. 1-ranked national prospects from this year’s junior and sophomore classes will also be on hand. They are shortstop/right-hander and two-time PG 14u Select Baseball Festival (’17-’18) Brady House from Winder-Barrow HS and right-hander/infielder/catcher and 2018 Fest participant Dylan Lesko from Buford HS, respectively.

Rest assured the Houston County Bears will enjoy themselves during their three days at the PG HS Showdown while also using the Hoover Met as one big classroom to learn as much as they can. And then they will return to Warner Robins and expend their energy working to bring home a third Georgia state championship in six years.

“We usually call it the Perfect Game hangover when we get back home because just nothing feels the same for a week or two,” Hopkins said. “It’s hard to really get our feet back under us sometimes because you play in these high intensity, high talent competition games … and then all of a sudden you’re trying to go back to what a normal baseball feeling is.”

Recent history tells us that a “normal baseball feeling” at Houston County is a feeling associated with success.