TIFTON — Tennis and soccer have started spring seasons at Tift County High. Now, baseball has joined them.
The Blue Devils open their regular season schedule Monday at Thomas County Central at 5:45 p.m. Their home opener is almost immediately after, 5:30 p.m. Wednesday against Berrien. Last week, Tift played a road scrimmage against Perry.
Head coach Kyle Kirk reports his team is healthy, as well as “a little bit stronger.” Tift is trying to get back to the state Class AAAAAAA playoffs after missing out the last three seasons.
Mason Avant is expected to be the big starter on the mound. He returns the most experience to the pitching staff and was second on the team in strikeouts in 2019. Kirk counts Reece Watson, Owen Manning, Gauge Domingue, Luke Dorman, Ryan Mercer and Conner Vansumeren among other possibilities.
Going around the diamond, Kirk listed his catchers as Bailey Booth and Dorman. At first base are Ben Brock and Cameron Sumner. At second could be Avant, Bryce Stephens, Cody Williamson, Lino Acosta or Allen Moretz. Stephens and Avant can both play shortstop as well.
Manning is expected to hold down third, with Acosta available as well.
Outfielders included Domingue, Watson, Colby Gann and Mercer.
“About two deep at every position,” said Kirk.
Manning led the team in runs batted in a year ago, at 16, and has the highest average among all returnees. Avant and Domingue were second and third in the RBI category and Domingue scored the second most runs.
Kirk said Avant has swung the bat well during practices. Two seasons ago, he hit .405.
Speed and timely hitting are going to have to be the name of the game for the Blue Devils. Kirk readily admits, “We’re not going to beat you with the long ball.” Tift hit three over the fence in 2019, two by Joseph Pittman (now at Augusta University) and the other by Manning. Kirk does believe his squad will have “a little more pop in the middle.”
If there are any surprises for Devils fans, he thinks it will be Booth, Stephens, Moretz and Sumner. Stephens has always possessed a very solid glove, but it was not until late season that his bat began to catch up. Moretz had some varsity playing time in 2019, but Booth and Sumner are relative newcomers to the big lineup.
Kirk pegged Colquitt County as perhaps the early favorite to win the Region 1-AAAAAAA title. But he’s not saying the favorite will win. “I think it’s going to be a close one,” he said. Region 1 has four teams, but only three are guaranteed state playoff spots. The fourth is up to the power ratings.
Lowndes won the 2019 region title by finishing 10-2. Colquitt went 7-5. Camden barely edged Tift for third place, finishing 4-8 in the conference to the Devils’ 3-9.
The Devils have additions everywhere, both athletes, assistant coaches and around the field. Kirk pulled in Colin Kirkland and Taylor Barber from Colquitt County to go along with his usual staff.
“I’ve had quality assistants added to my solid staff,” said Kirk.
Folks driving by the high school in recent weeks have been able to spot other changes. The scoreboard has been raised and a new signboard has been erected underneath. Tift logo flags have been added to the outfield as well as a new batter’s eye.
Beyond the first two regular season games, Tift will become part of neighboring Cook County for a brief period. The annual Hornet Invitational has expanded beyond Adel to TCHS, which will host two games Friday and four Saturday. The Devils themselves will play Denmark at 6:30 p.m. Friday and Calhoun at 5:30 p.m. Saturday. Both games will be in Tifton.
Other teams coming to Tifton are Colquitt, Ola and Fitzgerald.