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Newton baseball exceeding expectations in young season

Don’t look now, but the Newton Rams baseball team is on a hot streak.

After a pair of wins this past week — a 4-3 grinder against Tucker and a 6-3 triumph on the road at Stephenson — the Rams came into a Saturday doubleheader at Pickens winners of five straight games. its last loss before falling 7-3 to Pickens Saturday afternoon was an 11-3 setback on Feb. 20 against cross-town rival Eastside. Newton won its first game in Pickens Saturday in a 5-3 triumph over Murray County.

But the aforementioned five game win streak is the kind that has Newton fourth-year head coach Andre Byrd scrambling to revise his expectations for his team.

“Absolutely. Already, I’m readjusting our expectations,” Byrd said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys, but they are playing terrific. We gotta work on our hitting some, but our pitching and our defense is our strong point.”

On the mound, Byrd said juniors Parker Kaufmann and CJ Thomas are the main guys out front getting it done for Newton. Byrd also mentioned sophomore Khalil Wilcox as one who’s showing ahead-of-schedule promise.

“The great thing about them is that they’re all coming back next year,” Byrd said. “The thing with them is this is their first time having varsity experience, but they’re playing like they’ve been here before.”

Byrd believes that experience may bode well for them in the next two weeks when the Rams open their Region 8-AAAAAAA campaign with a pair of three-game series against what the coach called two “standard bearer” programs in Archer and Grayson.

“When we look at them, we’re gonna try and play spoiler,” he said. “And by our guys being so young, and not having played varsity, and not knowing these guys, I don’t think they know what I just said. They don’t know that those guys are the standard bearers in Gwinnett County and even the state. So because they don’t know, they should just go out there and play and be okay.”

Byrd attributes the early season success and current hot streak to, not only solid pitching and defense, but a collective buy-in fostered by a few tough losses in the season’s first couple of games.

“They’re starting to listen to what I’m saying,” Byrd said. “Because we can’t hit really well right now, we’ve gotta manufacture some runs. We have to bunt a little bit, run and steal some bases. So they’re paying attention to the strategy now. Once you get beat once or twice early, it kind of humbles you and makes you listen.”

By virtue of the Rams’ inconsistencies at the plate, Byrd knows he’ll have to grind out a lot of close games.
“We can be real good if we learn how to hit,” he said. “If we can put runs on the board we’ll have a special season. But if we don’t, we’ll continue to have these one-run ball games that we’ll win or lose.”

Such was the case this past Tuesday during Newton’s 4-3 home win against Tucker. The Rams generated enough at the plate early, and got a solid performance on the pitching mound down the stretch from Carl Thomas to pick up the victory.

In that game, Newton stormed out of the gate fast with a pair of runs in the bottom of the first inning to take an early 2-0 lead, but after being shutout in the top of the first, Tucker came back with a three-run second inning to gain a one-run advantage. But Newton’s two-run bottom of the second, which began with a Buck Sullivan double, gave the Rams all they needed offensively to secure their second straight win.

Thomas threw a complete game, giving up the three runs, but also striking out five. Marcus Smith was Newton’s most consistent bat. His three hits and a run scored helped push the offense against a stingy Tucker squad. Wilcox also had a hit and scored, and Kauffman aided with a sac fly that brought in a run.

A similar scenario played out Friday night in the Stephenson game, highlighted by good pitching, timely offense and solid defense. Kauffman pitched six innings, gave up just one earned run while striking out seven batters. Meanwhile, Jamal Boykin had two hits and Thomas helped the offense’s cause with a timely double.

Senior Jacob Bowen recorded the save, striking out two while pitching the seventh inning.

Newton will get a few days rest this week before traveling to Hapeville Charter on Friday. Then it will host Archer on Monday March 13 for a three game series, where two of the three will be played at home.

Meanwhile, Byrd’s key to success, beyond the execution of the fundamentals, is to get his boys to enjoy the process of getting better with each game.

“I want them to just have fun while they’re out there,” he said. “I’ve been there, so I know what happens when you just go out and have fun. If you’re having fun doing what you do, and you’re playing loose, good things will happen. If you make a mistake, laugh it off and let’s go on to the next play. We want to see them love what they’re doing.”