One Game at a Time – North Oconee looks for first baseball state title

The North Oconee baseball team has won 32 straight games en route to an appearance in the final four of the Class 4A GHSA championship. The team’s only loss, a cold and rainy February day, came to Lassiter high school in a five-inning bout that was called off due to the weather. “If you ask our guys about it, they’ll ask, ‘What game?’” says head coach Jay Lasley. “’The game got called Coach,’ they’ll say, ‘We didn’t finish.’”

It was that same mentality that helped North Oconee persevere in an 11-inning quarterfinal victory over Thomas Central County on Monday night. Bryce Toci’s 2-run home run in the bottom of the 11th inning lifted the Titans to their second final four appearance in as many years.

“I thought is this the game we are going to lose, is this it” Lasley said. “But then I said to my pitching coach, ‘If they let us hang around any longer, we’re gonna win this thing.’”

North Oconee will now face a familiar opponent in the semifinals. Last year, it lost the first two of a three game series to Benedictine Military School to end its season. This year, the two teams will meet in the semifinals once again.

“Coach Farmer and those guys, they play a great brand of baseball,” said Lasley. “They have a strong tradition of making deep runs.

North Oconee is searching for its first baseball state championship in the school’s history. Benedictine has three with the most recent coming in 2018. Lasley said his team has moved on from last year, playing this season with a next game up mentality.

Last year was last year, Lasley says. He has an introspective outlook on his team’s chances this year, understanding while talent is important, a three-game series requires a little luck as well.

“I told the guys all they can control is their attitude and their effort,” he said. “If it’s meant to be, it will be.”

His team’s chances are likely higher than last year – even without third-round MLB Draft selection Bubba Chandler – due to the presence of a 10-man rotation of pitchers who are more than capable.

North Oconee’s 35-1 record this season backs that up.

Because of last year’s result, North Oconee’s loss to Benedictine in the semis, the rematch seems fitting. In Game 1 of the 2021 playoff series, North Oconee’s senior ace Bubba Chandler took the mound. They lost 6-5, in which case the second game had become a formality.

“We knew they were gonna pitch Carter Holton in Game 2, which was going to be tough,” said Lasley. “Winning game 1 gives you much more of a strategical advantage.”

Game 2 was dominated by Benedictine’s senior ace. He pitched a six-inning, 14 strikeout shutout performance. In Holton’s freshman year at Vanderbilt, he has already started 12 games. Vanderbilt has become a breeding ground for MLB talent, headlined by guys like Walker Buehler and Dansby Swanson in recent classes.

With Chandler and Holton both out of the programs, each team looks different, yet those losses didn’t keep either team from reaching the same point. For North Oconee, the current pitching staff has been the driving force behind another deep run in the playoffs.

Lasley says it’s the work ethic that’s been passed down from the successful guys that have left the program for college or the MLB.

It started with Chase Brice – who was once Trevor Lawrence’s backup QB at Clemson – and guys like Dom Hughes (Kansas State), Kumar Rocker (Vanderbilt product), Will Pearson (UGA) and Chandler that continued to drive that competitiveness to win.

“It’s not just kids who are gifted,” says Lasley. “It’s guys who are invested into the weight room, invested into the velocity programs, and invested into the offseason work. It’s a culture of hard work that has gotten us to this point.”

Benedictine has something to prove too. While it advanced to the championship in 2021, the team lost the first two of the three game series to the Marist School. Benedictine could only muster one run in the two games and no doubt feel that it has unfinished business this year.

In 2021, the two teams met in North Oconee for the semifinals. This year, the semis will take place in Savannah, at the home of Benedictine, after a universal coin toss by the GHSA on Tuesday, May 11.

Lagrange will host Cedartown on the other side of the bracket as both Game 1’s will take place on May 14, with the necessary games following each day.

As North Oconee looks to etch its name on the trophy for the first time, Benedictine will look to end the Titans’ championship aspirations for the second consecutive season and snap the longest active win-streak in the state.


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