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Strong nucleus returns for South baseball
Kaleb Johnson
Kaleb Johnson (pictured) returns as the Mustangs’ No. 2 pitcher behind 2021 Region 2-AAAAAA Pitcher of the Year Nick Milbrandt. Johnson is also a standout centerfielder. - photo by Mark Lastinger/staff

By Donald Heath

Special for the Effingham Herald

GUYTON — There’s something comforting about having nearly everyone back from a 27-win team that won a region championship and advanced to the Elite Eight at state a year ago.

That’s the resume South Effingham’s baseball team brings into the 2022 season.

The Coaches Box Georgia, an Internet site promoting high school baseball statewide, ranked the Mustangs fifth in Class AAAAAA in a preseason poll.

“Our spirits are high, but preseason polls are what they are — reflections of what you did last year. This is new year and things don’t magically happen, but the players are working hard,” said SEHS coach Todd Eubanks, whose squad opens the season at home Feb. 15 at 6 p.m. against Savannah Country Day.

The Mustangs should find out a lot about their team quickly. Four of their first five games are against teams that won 20 or more games last season.

But Eubanks knows a thing or two about winning, ranking 23rd among the state’s winningest active coaches with a 463-255 overall record according to the Georgia Dugout website.

And he knows what he has coming back. The Mustangs should have a solid pitching staff led by the Region 2-AAAAAA Pitcher of the Year Nick Milbrandt and they’ll be solid defensively.

And on offense, SEHS returns seven every-day starters who understand the philosophy of manufacturing runs to make pitching and defense stand up.

“We’re getting there. We have our bright spots,” Eubanks said.

The memory of a special 2021 spring might be the most valuable. SEHS began its first season in Region 2-AAAAAA play with three losses to Glynn Academy. And Game 3’s ending couldn’t have been more disheartening — a 9-3 lead disappearing after the Red Terrors rallied for 13 runs in the seventh inning.

“That first series, we were devastated,” Eubanks said. “(After the third game), I never felt so bad. But we came back. That’s what makes high school ball the game it is.”

After being swept by Glynn, SEHS won 10 in a row overall and 13 of 15 region encounters.

The Mustangs won the region by topping Richmond Hill 1-0 behind the complete-game pitching of Kaleb Johnson in the decisive final game of the regular season.

And the heroics followed into the postseason. Noah Hollis’ walk-off home run in Game 3 eliminated Lee County and left fielder Maddox Shiell’s strike to the plate ended a wild 9-8 Game 1 win over Pope.

A lot of the names remain the same. Milbrandt, a senior righthander, is back despite a scare from a football injury in the fall. Milbrandt tied a school record with 10 wins last season.

“He’s been strong and we’ve seen no signs of an injury,” Eubanks said.

Kaleb Johnson returns as the team’s No. 2 on the mound and No. 1 at the top of the lineup. He’s also a ball hawk in center field.

Zach Wert could fill a couple of holes potentially as a No. 3 starter on the mound and as a starter at second base. Avery Sikes, who had two playoff starts last season, will battle Wert for the open starting pitching slot.

Shiell, who possesses a 90-mph fastball, could be the closer.

Around the horn, Milbrandt is at first base, Wert at second, and newcomers Dru Futch and Dalton Redmond will fill in at shortstop until Carson Spendiff returns from a knee injury.

Hollis, nicknamed “Hollywood” for his flair for the dramatics, is a solid third baseman who has already signed to play with Ohio University.

Left to right in the outfield are returners Shiell, Johnson and Hunter Walthour. Last season, Walthour batted cleanup.

Highly regarded Aaron Benton, a strong-armed sophomore (1.8 seconds to second base), is behind the plate. Zach Zorbo adds some pop as the designated hitter.

“It should be an exciting season with a lot of competition every night,” Eubanks said. “What we want to do is win the week (winning the region three-game series at least two games to one). If you win the week, you should be playing at the end of the year.”