Trojans trying for spring 3-peat

Feb. 27—The two-time defending state champion John Milledge Academy began the 2024 season in stride Monday.

The basepaths around Georgia College & State University's John Kurtz Field, site of the season opener between the Trojans and War Eagles of Brentwood, might as well have been a track with how aggressive JMA was being in advancing from station to station. The Trojans took bases at will and beat the Sandersville school 15-0 in just three innings in front of a large opening day crowd.

Senior shortstop Blake Bellflower (.374 batting average, 5 home runs, and 29 RBI last year) had a big day at the plate going 2-for-2 with 3 RBI. His first swing was a triple yanked into right field that brought leadoff man Bud Veal (.381, 28 runs scored, and .505 on-base percentage) around to home in the bottom of the first. Despite having just come over from the basketball court, Veal had reached with a line-drive double in his first at-bat. The two aforementioned names along with returning GIAA Class AAA Player of the Year Cooper "Texas" Wilburn (.411 average, .557 OBP, 7-0 pitching record) bring back the most experience for the Trojans as they seek a three-peat this season.

"There's no better three dudes on a team in the state of Georgia than those three," JMA head coach Chad Starley said.

Beyond that outstanding trio, it's largely a remade starting lineup for Starley in his third year as head coach. He had a junior-heavy team two years ago and a senior-laden squad in the '23 title run. Even with so many players seeing their first significant innings at the varsity level, Starley still believes it's going to take a very good team to knock his own off the throne.

"We do have some new guys, but they've been preparing and they're ready," he said. "These guys have been in the program waiting on their shot. This team is super hungry and has more dog in them than any team I've had at John Milledge. They're fighters, competitors, and they want to win. I feel like we have as good a chance as anyone of getting back to the Final Four and finals as long as we can stay injury-free."

Speaking of injuries, one seems to have already reared its head as Wilburn, the team's top pitching arm, was kept off the mound as a precautionary measure Monday.

"He's had some tendonitis in his arm and we had a good feeling that we didn't need him to beat Brentwood today so he got the day off," Starley said. "He's good to go moving forward, I just didn't really want him throwing today."

Junior Remington Weaver got the start instead, surrendering just two hits across three innings without walking a batter. He struck out four and figures to be a key hurler especially after Kolt McMichael hurt his knee back in football season. Weaver is part of a deep stable of arms the Trojans have. Starley said as many as 11 different players could see time on the mound, which is a really big number for a school of John Milledge's size. That figure may shrink as pitching roles are determined.

The Trojans will be on the road for their next few contests and won't waste much time before jumping into region play. That begins March 12 when First Presbyterian Day of Macon comes to town. The remaining three Class 4A Macon private schools make up the rest of John Milledge's region. With Tattnall Square Academy and FPD having been state semifinalists in the league's highest classification last season, the region ought to be a competitive one.

But the GIAA's current model of blending teams of different classes into districts/regions has made winning a region championship lose a lot of its luster.

"The region's tough, but it's hard for it to matter because we don't play them in the playoffs," said Starley. "We're going to try to win the region, but a region championship really doesn't matter any more."

Region finishes no longer have any bearing on state playoff seeding. That's currently handled by the MaxPreps power rating system.

What the tough region will do though is help prepare the Trojans for what they hope will be a deep AAA state playoff run from late April on into May. Starley pointed to Pinewood — challenger to JMA for the last two state championships — as well as Heritage of Newnan and south Georgia's Terrell Academy as other teams to look out for. John Milledge will see those latter two teams very soon with games scheduled at Heritage (March 4) and at Terrell (March 9) next week.