Originally created 03/12/06

Talent Sprout

Chris Johnson held one hand level with his chin.

The Greenbrier shortstop, who missed last season with a knee injury, used that hand to illustrate an aligning of the stars.

"We were right here with what we thought we had coming back," he said. "But with these new faces. Whew. Our new guys move us up all the way to here."

The "new faces" are Lakeside transfer Jeff Rowland and Augusta Christian transfer Nolan Belcher.

Johnson's hand rose from his chin when he mentioned Rowland. He then elevated his hand above his head talking about Belcher.

They join Johnson, University of Georgia signee Rich Poythress at third base and likely professional draft pick Rafael Parks in right field.

"We're at a whole new level," Johnson said. "We should have a good season."

That's an understatement. Greenbrier is currently ranked No. 1 in Class AAAA by a coaches' poll on www.gasports.com. The Wolfpack (4-0) have won by an aggregate margin of 46-4 - including a 17-1 win against Class AA finalist Westside, a program as rock-solid as it gets around the area.

"The only word is wow," said Evans coach Ricky Beale, who leads another of the area's best programs. "We're talking about two of the best (players) in the area going to what was going to one of the best teams in the area coming in on paper."

Expectations are high. The Wolfpack won Columbia County's last state championship in 1999.

"I hope coach (Ed Williams) won't mind me saying this, but this is how I feel," said Garrett Black, who serves as an advance scout for the team. "But Ed's team is loaded. They've got what it takes to win a state title. And Class AAAA sets up real well for them. They should probably win it all."

SEVERAL READERS have e-mailed their thoughts about the infusion. Most include the phrase "New York Yankees of the area." A state message board lists more than 100 responses to "Greenbrier's free-agent signings."

Belcher was The Augusta Chronicle's Private School Player of the Year last season after leading Augusta Christian to a state title on the mound as a freshman. The 5-foot-7 lefty had a 0.13 ERA in 47 innings with 93 strikeouts. Rowland made second-team All-Area last season as a sophomore.

"We've got a new pitcher in Belcher and a new center fielder in Jeff," Johnson said. "Both have speed. Both can hit. I guess if I had to cherry-pick two guys from the area to add to our team, it would be those two."

Johnson heard the rumors about their transfers, but didn't believe them until he saw at class at Greenbrier. Rowland enrolled at the beginning of the school year. Belcher enrolled after finishing basketball season at Augusta Christian in February.

There are another 11 posts under the topic of Greenbrier and ethics. But the reasons behind each transfer seem to reveal nothing out of the ordinary.

"I don't get into contacting kids," Williams said. "I never contacted either of them. Nor did any of our staff. I never saw Nolan Belcher pitch until this year. ... I think the thing is, we've been successful in the past and have built up tradition. Maybe that draws players to our school. But I think it boils down to what a parent believes is best for their child."

Belcher and Rowland both said Greenbrier was about their only option, and their moves had little to do with the thought of the exposure gained in playing for a possible state champion team.

Belcher said the private-school tuition at Augusta Christian was a hardship and he lived in the Greenbrier school zone anyway.

"The move was nothing more than that," he said. "If Greenbrier was a .500 team and wasn't going anywhere, I would still be here."

Rowland's situation is rooted in family.

"It was coming back home," Rowland said. "We had a divorce, and I ended up moving back into this zone. I'd be here at Greenbrier no matter what kind of team they have. I was a bat boy here during elementary school. Coach (Terry) Holder used to bring me over. So I started off at Greenbrier and my mom moved off. This is just coming back to where I started out."

IT'S FUNNY how the moves have overshadowed the senior year of Poythress, who hit .553 last season and has 21 homers and 81 RBI over the past two years.

But he cares little about improving those figures this year.

"I've come to realize at this point of my career, now that I've got Georgia, I don't need to think one second about myself," Poythress said. "I have no number goals. All I want to do is whatever it takes to make sure we win."

Along with his powerful bat, Poythress has brought more than his share of vocal leadership, turning him into a 6-foot-4, 235-pound drill sergeant.

"Rich is the guy that if he sees you doing something wrong or what the coaches don't like he will tell you," Johnson said. "He's not going to wait for the coaches. He's going to tell that guy what he needs and not take any shortcuts."

"I think this team has the talent to do anything," Poythress said. "It may be the most talented team I've been on. But what this team does this year will have little to do with talent. So I am going to be the one that maybe says things some guys don't want to hear but maybe they need to hear. It's going to come down to who works the hardest. ...

"I'm going to put a lot on myself to make sure we have the right focus, work ethic and chemistry. That's what wins championships."

Reach Jeff Sentell at (706) 823-3425 or jeff.sentell@augustachronicle.com.


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