Rattling off back-to-back region championship runs, the Carrollton High School baseball team is now completely locked in on the next objective — the Class AAAAA state crown.
That journey into the tourney swings into action when the top-seeded Trojans play host to fourth-seeded Walnut Grove in a best-of-three, opening-round series beginning with a 4 p.m. doubleheader on Friday at Cole Field. The if-game is set for 2 p.m. on Saturday.
Carrollton (24-6) reached the state quarterfinals last season in its first year competing at the Class AAAAA level, and the returning players want to take it even further this time around, especially the eight seniors who are preparing for their final postseason donning the Black and Gold.
"Coming into this year, we definitely knew we wanted to do it again," noted Trojan senior designated hitter Andy Smith. "So this year, we've got a special group of guys. We're real tight and we've definitely got big plans for making a deep run and making some noise here in the playoffs."
Carrollton head coach Ryan Zaideman said this group has all the hallmarks of a state title contender behind its chemistry, quality starting pitching, depth in the bullpen and a versatile offensive attack.
Of course, it all starts and ends with those eight seniors, and Zaideman said it's been a fun bunch to coach over the past four years.
"Our seniors have been an excellent group of guys who have led by example and have been very vocal leaders for us in the clubhouse and on the field. It's a very special group of seniors we've got this year," Zaideman said. "It's been very enjoyable to watch them grow and develop as young men and develop as leaders on this team."
Three of those seniors will serve as staples on the mound this postseason in the form of starters Rhett Daniel, Jared Soliz and Will Carney.
Having the luxury of such experience in a playoff setting is something the Trojans hope puts them over the top, along with the number of reliable arms coming out of the bullpen.
"I don't think there's a better pitching staff in the state. We have 10 to 12 guys that we can put in and be comfortable with them on the mound," Daniel said. "I like having that depth because not everybody is going to have the day and perform every day and have it go the way you want it to go.
"Last year we relied on me and Jared whole-heartedly and as we saw in the elite eight, you can't rely on your starters the whole time. If one blows up, you've got to have some pitching behind you to come through and save you."
Soliz also noted how the depth serves as a security blanket for the rest of the rotation and, ultimately, the team.
"It's very important, especially in the playoffs with back-to-back games and maybe a Game 3. That's very crucial. We've got to have our bullpen step up," Soliz said.
Looking ahead to the first-round series, the Trojans anticipate facing a solid No. 4 seed in the Warriors (14-13), who come out of a competitive Region 8 that includes defending state champion Loganville, along with Buford and Flowery Branch.
Walnut Grove is led by 6-foot-5 junior left-hander Eli McMullen on the mound, while Austin Little, Matthew Brown and Nathan Boyce are also expected to toe the rubber for the Warriors in the series.
Offensively, junior third baseman Jake Love and McMullen are their top hitters in the No. 3 and No. 4 spots, while the rest of the lineup features more of a small-ball attack.
"They do a good job of putting balls in play. (Love) is their big stick at the plate. They've got some athletic guys, some guys that can run that they try to put in motion," Zaideman said.
When it comes to his own offense, Zaideman said the focus this week has been keeping a simple approach and not trying to do too much.
"As long as we're doing that, we're going to be in good shape. When guys go up there and try to do more than they're capable of, that's when we usually get in a little trouble," Zaideman said. "Our guys as a whole all year, I've been really pleased with how our hitters have really embraced their approaches and how they go out there and their plans in certain situations. I've been really pleased with our situational hitting. Guys have come up and they're not trying to be heroes. They're just going about their business, doing their job and executing."
The Trojans are confident that if they execute their style of play and do all the little things right, it could be a special postseason. But right now all the focus is on the Warriors and clearing that first hurdle.
"I think the only thing we need to worry about is ourselves because I don't think there's a better team in the state, maybe, talent-wise. But I don't think there's a team that works harder and gets after it like we do and has the team chemistry and bonding like we do," Daniel said. "The biggest opponent we have is ourselves, for sure. That's the only thing we need to worry about."