0

HERALD ALL-AREA BASEBALL: Too close to call

Georgia Southern-bound pitcher Douglas Nobles of Westwood, left, and Lee County first baseman Daniel Nichols, who will play for the University of Georgia next season, are co-winners of The Albany Herald Ray Knight Players of The Year award.

Georgia Southern-bound pitcher Douglas Nobles of Westwood, left, and Lee County first baseman Daniel Nichols, who will play for the University of Georgia next season, are co-winners of The Albany Herald Ray Knight Players of The Year award.

For Lee County’s Daniel Nichols, it was always a matter of not listening to what others said and simply believing in himself.

For Westwood’s Douglas Nobles, there was plenty of talk, too. When Nobles left Baconton Charter for Westwood two years ago, he came with high expectations — but no one could have imagined what he would ultimately accomplish.

Both Nichols and Nobles soared beyond what anyone expected, and both did it with dedication, hard work and a belief in themselves. And that’s why they stand together today as co-winners of The Albany Herald’s 2012 Ray Knight Baseball Player of the Year award.

And for Nichols the award is especially sweet because his brother Thomas was the 2007 Ray Knight Player of the Year.

“It’s great to prove somebody wrong and prove that hard work pays off,’’ said Nichols, a first baseman who hit .480 with a .680 on-base-percentage. He belted 11 home runs, the third most in a season in Lee County history — and drove in 38 runs with 36 hits, including six doubles. He also scored 33 runs and was solid as a rock at first base. He signed early with the University of Georgia and then had a monster season.

Those numbers — especially his power numbers — are impressive enough and even more dazzling considering he played in the GHSA Class AAAA division and faced incredibly tough competition while leading Lee County to a Region 1-AAAA title and into the playoffs.

No one would have guessed Nichols was going to produce like that when he arrived at Lee County.

“He was a solid ball player, but he wasn’t real big as a ninth-grader’’ Lee County coach Rob Williams said. “As a freshman he wasn’t someone you would have thought would be this kind of player. It didn’t happen overnight. It came from four years of hard work and dedication.’’

And some help from the family.

“I just kept working hard, and my brother kept telling me that I could be all I wanted to be if I applied myself,’’ Nichols said. “My dad (Tim Nichols) and brother both helped me with my swing and helped motivate me. I never let other people get me down.’’

Nichols said watching his brother Thomas, who was a star at Georgia Tech, also helped him develop as a player.

“He helped me with my swing and I watched the way he played at Georgia Tech,’’ Nichols said. “Watching him do great things up there helped me to know I could do good things.’’

Nichols was more than a student of the game — he was taking AP classes.

“And I was always watching other players and their swings on TV, guys like Bryce Harper, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez and others,’’ he said.

Nichols had a bit of a growth spurt as a sophomore and started for Lee County’s junior varsity team. After a fast start, Williams moved Nichols to the varsity, where he proved himself as a pinch-hitter. By the end of the year he was a vital part of the team and a starter in the playoffs

“It was big for me to move to the varsity as a sophomore,’’ Nichols said. “He (Williams) put me in a good situation to help me get better.’’

Williams said the move was an easy choice.

“He started 10th grade on the JV team, but things just started clicking for him, and he got better and better,’’ Williams said. “He ended up on the varsity as a DH. I think the turning point for him came that year in the playoffs. He hit a two-run home run to give us the lead in the playoffs against Lakeside Evans and we won the game. Once he did that, it was like he said: Hey, I belong.’ “

Nichols hit .404 as a junior with four home runs, and then he came into his own playing summer ball for Savannah’s Roundtrip travel league team that entered prestigious tournaments and all-star games, which drew tons of scouts.

“My coach at Savannah (Braxton Jeffers) pounded into me to believe in yourself,’’ Nichols said. “And I had a chance to play in front of a lot of scouts that summer. He gave me a lot of confidence, and (Williams) gave me a lot of confidence. When he put me in there my sophomore year it showed me he believed in me. He knew the potential I had. For him to put me in there as a sophomore and give me that opportunity was big for me, knowing he had confidence in me. That’s what got it started.’’

During an All-Star game last summer more than 70 scouts were on hand and watched Nichols go 3-for-3 with two doubles and a home run. After the game, scouts started calling, and after Nichols’ phone went dead that night, more scouts called the next morning.

Nichols, who had already had offers from Georgia Southern and Mercer, found himself on the phone with Georgia, Georgia Tech, Auburn and others.

He made a visit to Athens last fall and fell in love with the place.

“Even though my brother went to Georgia Tech, I just couldn’t resist going to Georgia once I made my visit,’’ Nichols said. “I just loved the campus.’’

He signed early with the Bulldogs, and made up his mind last fall to get big enough to play in the SEC.

“Last fall I focused more on getting bigger and stronger than I did on baseball,’’ Nichols said. “I knew I would have to get stronger if I wanted to compete in the SEC. I was going to the weight room five days a week.’’

It worked. Just look at Nichols’ power numbers and the way he scorches the ball.

“He doesn’t get cheated,’’ Williams said. “He put a lot of work into his swing, and learned to hit the ball the other way, and when he hits a home run most of them are no doubters. The only doubt is how far they will go.’’

Williams believes Nichols will have success at the next level, and anyone who has seen him play would probably agree. He was an easy chose for the award.

For Nobles, it was a different ride, one that came complete with redemption, jubilation and a final moment on the mound when he was throwing with more heart than arm.

That’s how his career ended at Westwood, with Nobles coming back to the mound for the final out after starting two of the three games of the GISA Class A state title series against Crisp Academy.

He carried Westwood all season, batting .585 and hitting 12 home runs, including two in the state title series, and he finished the season 10-1 on the mound with one save — but what a save.

“It seemed like everything came down to that final out for me,’’ said Nobles, who lost to Crisp Academy last year in the state final, 2-1, after pitching a no-hitter for six innings. He said that loss was “heartbreaking,’ and all but vowed to win a title as a senior.

“After what happened last year, the biggest thing was that I got to pitch that last out,’’ he said. “The biggest goal all year wasn’t how many home runs I would hit or anything like that. The biggest goal was winning a state championship. And to be able to get that last out. It was all there in one out. To get that out was my greatest accomplishment.’’

Nobles threw more than 150 pitches in the series, but ended Game 3 by getting a ground out to second to nail down a 12-11 win for Westwood and end a remarkable two-year career with the Wildcats.

“When he came here I heard all the talk about him, and what a good player he was,’’ Westwood coach Al Timmerman said. “But I’ve been around a long time, and you know how talk can be. But when I finally saw him play, it was like, ‘Wow!’ I knew he was going to be a special player.’’

Nobles won eight games on the mound as a junior and hit 13 home runs to lead Westwood to the state finals, where Crisp Academy prevailed to win the title. He was a strong candidate for The Herald Player of the Year as a junior, before signing early with Georgia Southern and coming back as an even bigger force as a senior.

After the state title series, Crisp Academy coach John Allen said the difference in the series was Nobles, saying it was Nobles who carried Westwood. After all, he had gone 5-for-9 (and three walks) with two homers — and his second shot gave Westwood a 12-8 lead in the sixth that proved to be the difference in the game, and the series. He started both of Westwood’s wins and finished the series as well.

“I’m still kind of pinching myself and saying, ‘Did that really happen?’ ’’ Timmerman said. “He’s one of those rare kids who comes along. To have a weekend like he had ... It’s hard to describe.’’

But when Nobles was told that he had been named The Herald’s Player of the Year along with Nichols, his first reaction was to thank everyone around him.

“Is it OK for me to thank my teammates in the paper?’’ Nobles asked. “Can I do that, just say thanks to all my teammates? I just want to thank them. They did everything for me.’’

Nobles was unrelenting on the diamond and simply pushed himself to become a better player.

“He has a great attitude,’’ Timmerman said. “And he’s always working to get better, knowing he has the ability and taking that and harnessing it and becoming the player he has become. Those guys don’t come along very often.

“I think the turning point for him came last year when he lost that game to Crisp Academy in the state finals. That hit him hard. He had gutted it out in that game and came up a little short. He made sure he wasn’t going to come up short this year.’’

Nobles said it was a year he would never forget.

“I accomplished everything I wanted,’’ he said. “It’s the most successful year of baseball in my life. I couldn’t ask of any more of my team. Give my teammates get all the credit. Winning this award is a honor, but I couldn’t have done it without my teammates.’’


2012 Albany Herald All-Area baseball team

Infielders

Drake Dozier, Senior,

Crisp County, 1B

WHY HE’S HERE: He led the Cougars with a .392 batting average and drove in 16 runs while scoring 22 runs. He was a solid as a rock at first base and a big reason Crisp’s defense was so impressive all year.

Taylor Walls, Sophomore,

Crisp County, SS

WHY HE’S HERE: He batted .387 with a .505 OBP and scored 31 runs while driving in 14. He also stole 15-of-16 bases and was a vacuum at shortstop.

Jordan Howard, Junior,

Crisp County, 1B

WHY HE’S HERE: He batted .470 with eight home runs, and drove in 45 runs to lead Crisp in all three categories. He also pitched and was the team’s closer.

Caleb Morrell, Senior,

Westwood, P/SS

WHY HE’S HERE: He was a vital pitcher for the state champs, going 8-2, and he was an outstanding shortstop, hitting .526 with 11 home runs.

Lindsey Short, Senior,

Deerfield-Windsor, 3B

WHY HE’S HERE: He led the team with three home runs and drove in 34 runs while batting .390 with a team-high .549 slugging percentage. He had eight doubles.

Harris Webb, Junior,

Deerfield-Windsor, SS

WHY HE’S HERE: He hit two home runs, drove in 27 runs and led the team in hitting with a .391 average.

Chris Brown, Senior,

Seminole County, 1B

WHY HE’S HERE: The Herald’s Football Player of the Year batted .348 with two homers and 35 RBI, and he also scored 28 runs.

Dee Virgin, Senior,

Seminole County, 2B

WHY HE’S HERE: He hit .367 while playing great defense at second base and led the team in runs (42).

T.T. Barber, Senior,

Miller County, 3B

WHY HE’S HERE: He batted .375 and played a strong third base to lead Miller to the playoffs.

William Sullivan, Senior,

Baconton Charter, 3B/OF/P

WHY HE’S HERE: He went 9-1 with a 1.13 ERA and struck out 64 batters in 49 innings, and also hit .353 with 13 RBI while playing third base and the outfield.

Outfielders

Andrew Stroud, Junior,

Lee County, OF

WHY HE’S HERE: He hit .355 and had 33 hits with seven doubles, two triples and four home runs. He scored 28 runs and drove in 26 runs, and went 5-for-5 in stolen bases.

Mark Fowler, Senior,

Lee County, OF

WHY HE’S HERE: He batted .315 with two doubles, a triple and a home run. He scored 26 runs while driving in 19 runs and stole seven bases in 10 attempts.

Josh Black, Junior,

Westover, OF

WHY HE’S HERE: Batted .486 with nine doubles and five triples and stole 29 bases. He led the team in runs with 21. He had a remarkable .725 OBP, and his coach said if they gave out Gold Gloves that Black would win one in centerfield.

Luke Whitman, Senior,

Crisp County, OF

WHY HE’S HERE: One of the leaders for the nationally-ranked Cougars, Whitman did a little of everything. He batted .271 with one homer, two triples and two doubles. He stole 17-of-18 bases and scored 22 runs while driving in 14. His coach called him the best defensive centerfielder in the area. Whitman also pitched and had a 3-0 record with a 0.42 ERA. He struck out 25 batters in 16 innings.

Davis Hines, Junior,

Deerfield-Windsor, OF

WHY HE’S HERE: He finished with a .353 batting average, scored 13 runs and drove in 14 runs while running down everything in the outfield.

Pitchers

Jess Posey, Senior,

Lee County, P/SS

WHY HE’S HERE: He hit .386 with a .527 OBP and had 10 doubles and drove in 16 runs. He also pitched and went 7-1 with one save and had a 2.38 ERA. He threw four complete games in his nine starts, and struck out 55 batters in 50 innings.

Robert Daniel, Senior,

Westover, P

WHY HE’S HERE: The hard-throwing lefty led the state in strikeouts for the third consecutive season and finishes his career at Westover with 379 strikeouts, the seventh most in Georgia history, regardless of classification. Daniel fanned 129 batters this season, averaging 12.7 Ks per (seven innings) game, and ended the season with a 1.69 ERA. He also batted .367 in region play. He signed early with Gordon College.

Robert Tyler, Junior,

Crisp County, P

WHY HE’S HERE: He went 7-0 with a 0.73 ERA and averaged 10.9 strikeouts per (seven innings) game in the regular season. He also batted .377 and led the team with 24 RBI. He had seven doubles, three triples and three homers, and scored 23 runs.

Davis Adkins, Senior,

Crisp County, P

WHY HE’S HERE: One of the top pitchers in the state, Adkins went 9-0 with a 0.34 ERA and averaged 9.9 strikeouts per (seven innings) game.

Chris Mosley, Junior,

Lee County, P

WHY HE’S HERE: He went 7-2 with two complete games and two saves, and had a 3.84 ERA. He struck out 62 batters in just 45 2/3 innings.

Austin Murphy, Junior,

Deerfield-Windsor, P

WHY HE’S HERE: He went 8-1 on the mound with his only loss coming in the state semifinals. He also had one save and led the team with a 1.46 ERA. He struck out 37 batters and hit .320.

Weston King, Junior,

Deerfield-Windsor, P/1B

WHY HE’S HERE: He went 8-2 with a 1.85 ERA with 38 strikeouts. He was even better at the plate, where he batted .351 with two home runs and 25 RBI. He led the team in doubles with 10.

James Bodrey, Senior,

Crisp Academy, P

WHY HE’S HERE: He went 9-1 with a 1.80 ERA, winning nine games in a row after losing on opening day. He also hit .420 and drove in 38 runs.

Josh Buczek, Senior,

Seminole County, P

WHY HE’S HERE: He went 5-2 with four saves and had a 2.06 ERA while striking out 41 batters in 41 innings. He led the team in hitting with a .488 average and 41 hits.

Catchers

Mason Worsham, Senior,

Westwood, C

WHY HE’S HERE: He was a leader behind the plate and hit .457 with a home run for the state champs. He stole 25 bases without getting caught once all year.

Justin Burke, Senior,

Seminole County, P/C

WHY HE’S HERE: He went 5-0 with a 1.92 ERA for the season and struck out 44 batters in 39 innings. He was the team leader behind the plate and hit .333 with one home run. He scored 36 runs.

Ty Sheffield, Senior,

Miller County, C

WHY HE’S HERE: He led the team with a .408 batting average and drove in 40 runs to lead the Pirates to the second round of the playoffs.

Brandon Weaver, Senior

Worth County, C

WHY HE’S HERE: He led the team in hitting with a .414 batting average with two home runs and seven doubles. He drove in 21 runs and had a .629 slugging percentage.

Utility Players

Jack Bell, Sophomore,

Lee County, C/DH

WHY HE’S HERE: He had 24 hits in 42 at-bats, and batted .571 with a .667 OBP for the season with five doubles and one triple. He also drove in 16 runs.

Brock Pinson, Junior,

Baconton Charter, P/3B

WHY HE’S HERE: He led the team in hitting (.405) with 15 RBI, four doubles and a triple, and he went 4-6 with a 2.36 ERA.