ALBANY -- Kevin Frewell knew the tall order he faced when he was thrust into the head coaching role this season for Westover's baseball program in place of retiring longtime coach Steve Bowers.
So far, though, so good -- the Patriots are back in the Class AAA state playoffs as a No. 3 seed, opening today on the road against No. 2 Spalding.
"(Spalding) is a very solid, very good team -- that much we know. They've been ranked in the (Class AAA coaches' poll) all season as one of the Top 4 teams in the state," Fretwell said Thursday during the team's final practice in preparation for the best two-of-three series that opens today at 4 p.m. with Game 1, followed immediately by Game 2 with the "if game" being played at noon on Saturday, if necessary. "We also know that when coaches were making predictions about which team would be in the Final Four this year, Spalding was one of those programs.
"So we have our work cut out for us. But the kids are ready."
The Patriots had better be, considering Spalding is 20-4 on the season and has only lost two games since March 30, including its regular-season finale in a narrow 6-5 defeat to a bigger Class AAAAA program, East Coweta, another one of Georgia's premier programs.
To make the task of advancing to the second round even tougher is the fact the Patriots -- who will leave around 10 a.m. today from Albany -- have to make a four-hour trek to North Georgia, get off the bus and then play back-to-back games.
Another concern of Fretwell's is pitching -- "They have a lot of depth, and we don't," the coach said -- but Westover may just have the answer to that problem if the Patriots' two best pitchers all season can rise to the occasion today.
Enter Robert Daniel and Michael Schlegel.
Daniel, the Game 1 pitcher today who is considered the team's ace, has an ERA of 1.80 and -- as just a sophomore -- is already receiving Division I looks, most notably from Notre Dame. Daniel is 4-6 on the season, but Fretwell says there's an explanation for that.
"Almost all his losses are because of errors (by us in the field)," said Fretwell, whose team started 7-0 in Region 1-AAA this year before sloppy play in the field led to a late-season unraveling that saw the Patriots lose five of their last eight games and limp into the postseason as a No. 3 seed behind No. 1 Worth County and No. 2 Cairo, forcing them into a first-round series on the road, rather than home in Albany. "I've said it before and I'll say it again: If Robert can have some short innings, keep his pitch count low and hit the corners (that we know he can hit), I like our chances. He can shut teams down when he's on."
The same could be said for Schlegel, who closed out the second-to-last game of the regular season against Dougherty, 10-0, with the team's first -- and only -- no-hitter of the year. Schlegel's ERA is almost as good as Daniel's at 1.91.
"Same thing with Michael," began Fretwell, "he can shut teams down when he's on."
Of course, provided the Patriots' defense comes through when it matters most, and Daniel and Schlegel can get through their starts unscathed for the most part, the onus then falls on Westover's bats to produce runs. That responsibility will fall on the team's leading slugger, J.T. Santos, who leads the Pats in home runs with four, followed by Schlegel with three. Another player to watch is recent Albany State signee Jacob Campbell, who has the best on-base percentage in Region 1-AAA at .693 to go along with his .433 batting average.
"J.T. will need to hit the ball the way he has been all season, and I think he will," Fretwell said. "And Jacob ... well, the kid just finds a way to always get on base. That's been big for us this season, his ability to get himself on base (and put us in scoring position). And I would hope (that combination of J.T., Michael and Jacob) will help us get some early runs in the game to take the pressure off some.
"But the bottom line is that if our bats wake up like they did earlier this year, we'll be OK. If they go cold, we're in trouble."
Trouble, however, may be lurking no matter what if Westover gets by Spalding. That's because likely awaiting the winner of this series will be No. 1 Columbus in the Sweet 16 round next week. Westover and Columbus have one common opponent -- Crisp County -- and the Patriots only managed a split with the Cougars during the regular season, while Columbus run-ruled Crisp in its meeting.
But if the Patriots were concerned about any of these factors, they didn't show it during this week's practices.
"The kids are real relaxed because they know Spalding has everything to lose and the pressure's not on us," Fretwell said. "The attitude has been very positive and they're ready to go out and try to pull the upset."