Baseball blog: ACE Charter’s rise from young program to championship contender

Credit: Johnny Crawford

Credit: Johnny Crawford

The GHSA Baseball State Playoffs have reached the Final Four and the remaining teams are eagerly waiting for their opportunity to earn a spot in this year’s state championships. Georgia is well known as a hotbed for baseball talent and few teams get the opportunity to etch their place in the state’s history by achieving the ultimate prize. Among the remaining title hopefuls is an upstart ACE Charter team that is about to play in the biggest series in the young program’s history this weekend.

Head coach Josh McLendon arrived at the school four years ago and has overseen the program’s quick rise to a championship contender.

“We are a relatively new charter school,” explained McLendon. “This is my fourth year. When the school was started six years ago, it only went to the eighth grade.”

The school added a grade each year following its start and as a result, this is just the third year that ACE Charter has had a graduating class. Despite this brief history, the school has quickly established its athletics across the various sports disciplines and now coach McLendon has a strong core of seniors that continuing to raise the bar.

“When I got here, my first group were the freshman who are the seniors now,” said McLendon. “So long story short, we didn’t even compete in region or compete in the playoffs so we were kind of brand new just doing a JV/Varsity hybrid schedule. And then we started competing in a region schedule three years ago, so this is just our third year being playoff eligible.”

The Gryphons made immediate strides and reached the playoffs that first year they were eligible. They were poised to make another playoff push and were off to a 7-2 start when last year’s season got cancelled during the pandemic.

“We actually made the playoffs our first year that we were eligible,” said McLendon. “We came out of a tough region with Tattnall, First Presbyterian Day, Stratford Academy, Mount de Sales and other really talented programs. We ended up upsetting Taylor County in the first round of the playoffs and then met with Irwin County in the Sweet 16. We took the first game 3-2 against FSU-commit Brodie Chestnutt and I thought we had something special. Our catcher unfortunately got injured in that first game and we eventually lost the series in three games.”

That first taste of playoff action is something that McLendon and his team have continued to build off through teamwork and a determined focus to put the program on the map.

“We were 7-2 and set up to have a pretty good year before the pandemic hit,” said McLendon. “Then this year coming back we knew were were going to have a good year. We had our five seniors, plus we added a transfer that came over that was also in the Class of 2021 to give us a good core of older guys that have played a lot of baseball and have been around and gotten that experience.”

When describing the formula his team has used this year, coach McLendon credits the group’s blue collar mindset.

“They are very blue collar,” said McLendon. “They work extremely hard and we also have a really solid group of sophomores that contribute at a high level and so it is a good mix of players that support each other and they play hard. We do not have dominating pitching like some teams we see on paper with guys throwing in the upper eighties. We don’t have the guys that are just going to blow it by you. We have more of the blue collar attitude that is going to work together and we don’t have holes in our lineup 1-9. We even have guys on our bench that can come in and swing it for us. In fact, I think we have 7 or 8 guys on our lineup that have homered at least once in games this season and so we have that potential deep threat throughout our lineup. We have a sophomore that leads the team with six homers, a senior that has four and another senior that has three. So we can do that, but at the same time we really emphasize small ball. We put down bunts and steal bases when we need to and so it’s been a good mix offensively and have been able to score a lot of runs. I think we have scored 350 runs and are averaging close to 10 runs per game. Then defensively, we are averaging just about one error per game, which for high school baseball is excellent. We’ve had a lot of games with no errors and so we just pride ourselves in making all the routine plays and then getting it done with the bats as well.”

McLendon and his team have marched through this year’s playoffs into uncharted territory, but they are not done yet, and are excited to appear in what is undoubtedly the biggest series in the program’s history.

“These are the biggest games our program has ever played, but at the same time we try not to make it too big for them,” said McLendon. “They’ve played a lot of baseball this year, they are 32-4, they are a good ball team and we just take it one game at a time and try to prepare them and give them as much good information as we can.”

Gordon Lee carries a 33-2 overall record in addition to a 23-game winning streak. Additionally, the Trojans are familiar with the pressure involved with a deep playoff series and they have won baseball’s last two Class A Public state crowns. Still, McLendon and his team are excited for the opportunity ahead of them.

“I think we have a mature group and there is a lot of leadership that trickles down,” said McLendon. “It’s good team chemistry and they all know what we are playing for. They know that if we win this next series then we will be playing for a state championship and so this opportunity doesn’t come along every day.”

In addition to the baseball team, ACE Charter has experienced success across the spectrum this spring and the excitement is only continuing.

“I think spring has been fantastic for us. Our soccer boys just won last night in the Final Four and so they will be playing in the state championship against GMC, which is a rival of ours out of our region in Region 7. It’s almost like a home state championship game in Macon. We have also had a lot of success this year with our tennis teams and in track and field. In fact, both boys and girls soccer won region this year, baseball won region and so did our tennis teams so this has definitely been an exciting time for our spring sports. It’s been a group effort to set the bar in the weight room and with our coaches and athletes setting those high expectations and then going out each day to compete in order to achieve them. And that’s what we want it to be about, we want to excel in athletics just like we do in the classroom here.”

ACE Charter will hit the road for their semifinal showdown with Gordon Lee this Saturday and Game 1 is set for a 3 p.m. pitch. Rain pushed Wednesday’s practice indoors, but the Gryphons continued their preparation with drills and scouting before returning to the field on Thursday. Be sure to follow this year’s playoffs and see if ACE Charter can earn its first-ever state championship appearance.

“When you are down to the last four, you expect every team to be a championship caliber team. Each round has been a little tougher than the last round and so we kind of expected that. We know what we are getting with a great Gordon Lee program. They were Class A Public preseason No. 1 and have a bunch of guys that will be going on to play at the next level. They’ve got a good ball team. People have doubted our team all year and so I hope we do play with a little chip on our shoulder, because we don’t have that dominating pitching so people underestimate us. I’m okay with that, because our guys have risen to the occasion each time we ask them to this season and have gotten the job done. I expect us to get Gordon Lee’s best shot, we just have to go into that believing and knowing that we deserve to be there. It’s been awesome. We are really big on team first and preach that. I tell our younger guys to soak it in just as much as the older guys because there is no guarantee that you are going to get this opportunity again. I hope we are where we are setting a foundation that allows us to duplicate this success, but I am also realistic about it. We want to savor each one. And so we were in a dog fight in our last game and went 10 innings and ended up winning. So that post game celebration was really exciting. We had a sophomore come in to pitch the final three innings and so it was really great to see the team celebrate the accomplishment.”

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