Some big challenges face the Bulldogs of Thomson High School when they start their 2010 baseball campaign in less than two weeks.
One of the biggest of those will be defending their Region 3-AAA title from a year ago -- the first such title in school history. And no one realizes that anymore than newly named head coach Jason Osborn, who takes over the baseball program following the retirement of legendary coach Terry Holder, who served as the Bulldogs' skipper for three seasons.
"We definitely want to repeat as region champions this season," admitted coach Osborn, who had served as an assistant coach under Holder. "That's our goal before we ever start the season."
The Bulldogs already are one of the top-ranked teams in preseason. Thomson made it to the second round of the Class AAA State Baseball Playoffs last season -- farther than ever before.
"We learned a lot about how to become champions last season; now, this team needs to create its own identity and find a way to become champions," said coach Osborn. "We're young depth-wise, but we've got a few starting players with some experience that I think will help us a lot."
The Bulldogs have only three seniors on this year's squad. They are third baseman Cody Ewest, utility player Drake Smallwood and pitcher Korey Austin.
The team is anchored by several starting juniors: Nick Rau, Abram Cartledge, Jesse Usry, Will Tankersley, Dontavous "Juicy" Brown and Nic Wood.
Rau will play shortstop and pitch; Cartledge will likely play first base and pitch; Usry will likely play right field, but could be seen at third base, catcher or first base from time to time; Tankersley will play left field; Brown will play center field; while Wood will see duties behind the plate after his left knee heals from being blown out during football season.
Three Thomson players are considered college prospects. They are Ewest, who is a fourth-year starter, along with Cartledge and Rau.
Cartledge, a lefty, was the most impressive pitcher on the team last season. He threw two no-hit games.
"We're looking for a lot of good things from Abe this season," said coach Osborn. "And the same is true of Rau. We believe that with the more experience that Rau gets on the mound, the better he will become as a pitcher. We're going to find out."
While Wood mends, Austin Cooper, a sophomore, is likely to be the Bulldogs' starting catcher.
"We hope to field a pretty good team, both offensively and defensively," said coach Osborn. "I think if our pitching comes around, we're going to be one of the better teams in our region."
Two other players may also figure prominently in the pitching department. They are Andy Grimaud and Hunter Brinkman, both sophomores.
Another sophomore expected to see lots of playing time will be Josh Jones, who played some at second base last season behind Zach Washington, who since has graduated and is attending Augusta State University.
"Right now, you could say that every position is open, but shortstop," said coach Osborn. "We're in a competitive mode. Everybody is playing for a position."
The new skipper said he was pleased with the progress that his team made in the weight-room during the off-season.
"They've gotten much stronger and they learned a lot about cheering for each other," added coach Osborn. "It's nice to see that kind of team spirit. They are learning about what accountability is all about. It's one of the keys to having a winning program. It's important to have accountability for yourself and your teammates."
Coach Osborn and his assistant head coach, Aaron Hall, will be heavily involved in making sure their players are doing things the right way.
"I believe if you do it the right way, winning will take care of itself," said coach Osborn.
The foundation to building winning baseball teams was laid by coach Holder, the new coach said, noting he was most appreciative of what the former coach had done for the Thomson program.
"Coach Holder taught a lot of these guys about formulating good work ethics," said coach Osborn. "He did a lot to change their mentality of the game."