Laney baseball rolls to hot start

Laney still has last year’s playoff exit on the mind.

The Wildcats bowed out in the first round of the playoffs for the second consecutive year in 2016, but this time it came in a deciding third game in extra innings against Peach County. Despite the emotional loss, it was a sign that things were improving for the program.

They’ve used that motivation as a springboard for continued program development, so much that “Adversity” is written down the backs of their team shirts. The results so far have taken Laney to new heights.

“Last year, the way the season ended, it really hurt them,” Laney coach Jerry Hunter said. “I could tell. We went through a lot of adversity against Peach County, so this year we’ve coined our season on adversity. They’re starting to recognize opportunity. Baseball is a game of opportunity. They’re starting to realize and recognize that, and they’re growing.”

That growth has pushed Laney into new territory by leading Region 4-AA at 6-0. The Wildcats are 7-1 overall with a lone loss to East Laurens, and they’re ahead of Harlem by one game. Key wins over Westside and Jefferson County put Laney in its current position, and a matchup at Harlem looms Saturday.

An upperclass core of Mario Sumpter, Omari Hunter, Aquilar James, Fernando Smith and Wallace Doyle have led Laney in all phases. Sumpter, Doyle and Hunter have put the team on their backs while on the mound, including big wins for Sumpter and Doyle so far.

“Pitching has played a big role for us this year,” Omari Hunter said. “From the past few years, pitching hasn’t carried us. This year, we’ve been tough on pitching. Since then, it’s kind of been on our shoulders so far this season.”

Hunter worked to build the program over many years, then took on the added responsibilities of boys basketball in 2010. After reaching the semifinals three consecutive seasons, including a Class AA state title in 2012, the longtime baseball coach stepped away from basketball to spend more time with family and renew his focus on baseball.

“It was tough, but it was about getting the program built. The wins would take care of themselves,” Hunter said when he stepped down in March 2013.

The baseball program is beginning to reap the benefits. Laney went 8-4 in Region 3-AAA in 2015 and made the playoffs. Last year produced the same region record, but the Wildcats nearly pulled off a memorable first-round playoff victory.

Now, they’re rolling early in the season, and eyes are set on a region crown. But results aren’t the only reason Hunter and his players are buzzing.

“When we first started, we just thought of it as a game,” Doyle said. “As we grew and started becoming a family, we started to understand what the program meant, and we put in more work.”

Hunter sees a different kind of energy from his group this year. They’re executing in-game what he’s teaching during practice, and they’ve made big outs in pressure situations. It’s the kind of even-keeled performance found in traditionally successful programs, and Laney is showing glimpses of turning that corner.

“My thing was not to get over here and win, it was to develop and change a culture,” Hunter said. “Once you change a way of thinking, winning takes care of itself. Being a part of changing a culture is what I wanted to be a part of.”

 

Reach David Lee at (706) 823-3216 or david.lee@augustachronicle.com.

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