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First game important to Patriots
South Paulding's Smith faces Patriots in opener

CONYERS - Heritage baseball coach Casey Teal isn't one to look ahead. That's why today's opening game of the Class AAAA state playoffs against South Paulding is the most important game of the year to Teal and his team. Add in an opposing pitcher like probable Game 1 starter Colby Smith and Teal will have no problem keeping his team focused.

"I do feel like Game 1 is important," Teal said. "We feel like every Game 1 is important, but this Game 1 has got a little extra something there just because Colby Smith is on the mound and he's a great high school baseball player. (Smith) gets after it, and (he is) the type of kid that wants to be on the mound when the game is on the line."

Smith, a 6-4 right-hander, is an imposing Game 1 assignment, but the Patriots like their chances on the mound in the opener and beyond. Senior right-hander Anthony Bazzani will get the ball to open the series and should be followed by five-tool sensation Tyler Austin, who recently threw a one-hit shutout against Salem.

No. 3 starter Brandon Thomas broke his pinky in a loss to Columbus in the regular season finale, but Teal was encouraged by the relief work of freshman Joe Salvador. The 5-4 loss to the nationally ranked Blue Devils was Heritage's third in five games, but Teal isn't worried. In fact, the nonregion setback had the longtime head coach feeling good about his team's future.

"I feel better at this point with our team than I have at any point in the year," he said. "My entire coaching career, I don't ever remember feeling good about a loss, (but) I felt like we had somewhat of a victory against Columbus. We battled (and) in my opinion Columbus is the best team in the state of Georgia."

Columbus wasn't the only difficult stop on the Patriots' schedule. Early losses to Class AAAAA schools Lassiter and Collins Hill and Class AAAA contender Marist, along with a victory over Cartersville, have helped prepare Region 8-AAAA's No. 3 seed for a possible deep run in the state playoffs.

"Our tough schedule early doesn't make us feel better about our record because we lost some games that we should've won," Teal said. "Baseball's about making adjustments, and our kids have responded well."

Kurt Aschermann Jr. can be reached at kurt.aschermann@rockdalecitizen.com.