By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
SPRINGFIELD — First things first — get to first base.
“The goal every year is to make the playoffs,” said Shane Ramsey about his first goal for his first year as the head baseball coach at Effingham County High School.
The Rebels (15-13) took a detour a year ago, finishing fifth in the seven-team Region 2-AAAAAA. They were 4-10 when COVID shut down the 2020 season.
But ECHS has been just two years removed from a Final Four state tournament appearance — a 2019 spring that brings back fond memories for Ramsey as well. That year, he directed Heritage to the Class AAAAAA state title, beating the Rebels along the way.
Now Ramsey is here trying to point ECHS baseball back in the right direction. The season starts Wednesday on the road in Savannah against Islands.
“It’s been neat because the kids have responded,” Ramsey said. “I’ve changed things and sometimes change is good. I like their energy level. They’ve always worked hard here. We have a chance to be pretty good if we continue to develop like we have.”
Rebels’ starting pitcher Caden Kessler is a believer in the team’s new coach, who worked as the team’s pitching coach the last two years.
“Coach Ramsey has brought a lot of new things to the program, good things,” Kessler said. “He’s helped me with my mechanics and if I’m not hitting well, he’ll help me. He’s always there and he always seems to know something I don’t.”
The Rebels were a streaky bunch a year ago. They jumped out to a 10-3 start, beating eventual state champion Metter twice in a three-game set in February. They took two games from the region’s No. 2 seed and eventual Elite Eight state participant Glynn Academy.
But they fell flat in the biggest showdowns and were swept in three-games series by Richmond Hill and South Effingham.
Ramsey hopes this year’s pitching depth can smooth out rough patches. Kessler, a sophomore, will be counted on to lead the staff. He won only one game last year, but surrendered one earned run or less in five of his seven starts while posting a 2.69 ERA.
“(Kessler) fit in well last year and at times pitched like a No. 1,” Ramsey said. “As a freshman, he handled the moment well. His physical skills are there and he’s only going to get better. He’s different now, he has more confidence.”
Ramsey said Griffin Howe has moved to No. 2 in the rotation and a plethora of candidates — including Mason Mock, Chapman Bennett, Matthew Ford, Timmy Burnsed — has a shot at No. 3. J.D. Coleman is being penciled in as a closer.
“We have a chance to have a pretty good pitching staff,” Ramsey said. “We have depth with our arms this year that we didn’t have last year.”
Creating depth and competition among the position players should make the Rebels stronger as well.
Coleman and Ford will be expected to be offensive leaders. Coleman, a catcher, recently signed to play at Queens University in Charlotte. Ford, a first baseman, tweeted his intentions to play at East Georgia.
Returnees Bennett (second base), Blake Hendrix (shortstop), Mock (third base) and outfielders Tyler Wells, Trent Newberry and Burnsed round out a formidable lineup.
And Ramsey will be looking for contributions from Logan Graham, Newton Kieffer, Eric Johnson, Will Floyd, Bryson Horton, Tucker Wilson and Jacques King.
“I plan on playing a lot of kids early on,” Ramsey said. “We have a good mix of younger kids and older kids and they’ve done a good job of competing against each other.”
Ramsey will challenge his team in the early going with a game against Pope and a doubleheader with Houston County — perennial powers in Class AAAAAA.
“We’re going to find out where we are pretty quick,” Ramsey said. “If you compete, you’re ahead of schedule. If you don’t, it’s a teaching moment. This is what we want to be.
“You go into a season with goals you set and we think we can meet them. We’ll have to work hard to get there, but we feel like we’ll be able to play with anybody. Now we have to go out and do it.”