CONYERS - When assessing his team's 2009 season, Heritage coach Casey Teal chose not to dwell on the second-round exit in the playoffs. Instead, the longtime head coach decided to look at the players that exceeded expectations.
Call it a Patriot Revival.
Begin with No. 3 starter Kelvan Diaz. Just another pitcher on the staff during last year's Elite 8 playoff run, Diaz took the next step in 2009, becoming a dependable hurler who peaked with a shutout victory over South Paulding to clinch a first-round series victory. Or No. 9 hitter Zane Barefield, a mere pinch-runner in 2008 turned starter and contributor in 2009. And let's not forget Joseph Lester, who stepped in to the No. 2 spot in the order and excelled, helping solidify an improved lineup.
"Kelvan Diaz made tremendous strides; he became a complete pitcher for us," Teal said. "Every single outing he made himself better. (Barefield) just went above and beyond his duty in every aspect of the game. (Lester) just went all out every single play."
Some lived up to expectations, and more. Catcher Tyler Austin had another fantastic season, batting in the three-hole before Teal moved the potential 2010 top-5 draft pick in the leadoff spot late in the season and energized the offense. The move was about getting Austin more pitches to hit (he was intentionally walked dozens of times and Teal said Austin saw more pitches in the final five games than he did at any other five-game stretch during the year), but was also a textbook decision, according to Teal. The Patriots coach said Austin, mostly in the leadoff spot last season, scored 62 runs and had 37 RBIs. This season, a No. 3 hitter until late, Austin had a total of 61 RBIs and runs scored. But Teal thinks it also had a lot to do with the production of the other hitters in the lineup, especially Barefield.
"Those hitters around him, in front of him, behind him are just as important as he is," Teal said. "Everybody's got to contribute. (Barefield) got on base for the top of the order, especially the time of the year when Tyler (was) batting leadoff."
Teal knows a circus-type atmosphere is going to hit the Conyers campus in early-2010 when Major League scouts begin descending on Austin's senior campaign. While reflecting on 2009, Teal began to look ahead to the roller coaster ride next season is expected to be.
"I think he's prepared for what he's going to face in the future; I think the team will be prepared for it," said Teal. "Not let the jealously get to them, because we're not going to have a player like him on the team, that's just a fact. Tyler has done a good job throughout the years, three years that I've had him, of keeping his head on straight; not being a cocky player. He's a very confident player, but he also knows drawbacks that can come with all that."
Kurt Aschermann Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.