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2012 PREP BASEBALL PREVIEW: Pats open 2012 looking to rebound from rough 2011

Westover ace Robert Daniel has led all state classifications in strikeouts the past two years and should have a dominant senior season. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Westover ace Robert Daniel has led all state classifications in strikeouts the past two years and should have a dominant senior season. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

ALBANY — In 2011, Westover High had one of the top pitchers in the state, but it didn’t do much good last year when the errors started piling up.

The Patriots finished third in Region 1-AAA in 2011 and went out in the first round of the GHSA Class AAA state playoffs after getting swept by Harlem on the road, finishing 15-8 overall.

Lefty Robert Daniel was the guy nobody wanted to face as a junior.

Want To Go?

WHO: Schley County vs. Westover.

WHAT: 2012 season opener for Westover.

WHEN: 6 p.m. today.

WHERE: Leesburg.

Daniel, who has signed with Gordon College in Barnesville, struck out 103 batters in just 48 innings, allowing just 19 hits all season while finishing with a 2.19 ERA. He’s even led Georgia — in all classifications — in strikeouts the past two seasons.

After getting several looks from bigger schools, Daniel chose the junior college baseball route to fast-track his chances of receiving Major League Baseball attention in the draft either in 2013 or ’14.

“The cloud’s lifted,” Daniel said of signing with Gordon College before his senior season. “I don’t have that hovering over me. Now it’s just about having fun and going out playing with my friends.”

The unearned runs took some of the steam out of Daniel’s high-80s mph fastball, along with a knee-buckling curve, slider and change-up, last season.

“We’ve just got to work on our defense and play behind Robert and our other pitchers,” Westover head coach Kevin Fretwell said. “Errors are what killed us last year.”

Daniel and fellow senior Nick Lane, a recent Albany State signee, will headline a solid pitching corps with more depth and experience than the program has had since Fretwell took over three years ago.

“We’ve got a couple good freshmen coming up and everybody from last year with more experience,” said Lane, who will hit near the top of the order and play mostly in the outfield.

Senior second baseman Ricardo Pugh has what Fretwell calls “one of the best bats in the region” and will likely hit behind Daniel and his high on-base percentage.

How far Westover’s basketball team goes in the state playoffs (the Patriots play in the first round Saturday) will determine how soon Westover gets its full baseball lineup back.

“When basketball is over, I’m going to pick up most of my offense,” Fretwell said.

Third baseman/relief pitcher T.J. Cromer, who played at Tift County last season, will join the team after basketball season along with starting outfielders Josh Black and Kell Miller.

“My outfield has got to be one of the fastest in the state,” Fretwell said. “It’s going to be blazing.”

Miller will also pitch in the rotation, joined by Michael Green, Luke Spalinger and freshman Andy Daniel, Robert’s younger brother. All five front-line arms are lefties, while freshman Landon Bittrell, a Valdosta transfer, is one of the few righthanders. Bittrell will also handle much of the catching duties.

Daniel, though, will be the workhorse again. He has undergone a strict regimen between starts for years to build the arm that has him pegged as a potential MLB draft choice out of high school.

“A lot of people think he was over pitched, but he only threw 30 percent of our total innings (in 2011),” Fretwell said. “We (still) lived off Robert a little bit more than we needed to, but we’re going to do it again this year. He’s a hurler. He’s our Tom Glavine, except he throws harder.”

Daniel says he isn’t worried about the workload or his draft status in his senior season. He’s even a little nervous about a season-opening start today at 6 p.m. vs. Schley County at Lee County High’s inaugural “Greatest Show on Dirt” four-team invitational.

“I always get butterflies before I pitch,” Daniel said. “I’ll take (the opener) just as serious as any other game. I’ll still get nervous.”

Westover’s fielding nerves hopefully have calmed in the past year, and an improved and faster defense will cut down on the unearned runs.

“We’re going to be probably two-deep at every position,” Fretwell said. “We’re a lot deeper in all aspects. Hopefully we can make some noise.”