There were high expectations for the 2012 Columbus (Ga.) baseball team. And with good reason.
The Blue Devils, with eight seniors in their starting lineup, were seeking a three-peat after winning Class AAA state titles in 2010 and 2011.
"The players, fans and coaches all knew we had a lot of talent returning," said head coach Bobby Howard, who's coached Columbus for nearly 30 years and has a 787-187 record at the school. "So we scheduled the best teams we could find, and it paid off in the end."
The Blue Devils won a state-record-tying 12th title, all since 1984, which was Howard's first year as coach. They also finished with a 33-4 record and the No. 2 spot in the final FAB 50 national rankings.
While the team finished runner-up in that poll, the state's most successful coach was runner-up to no other coach this season. Howard was named the ESPNHS National Baseball Coach of the Year on Friday.
"We had good team chemistry and leadership the last four years," Howard said. "And with three good pitchers, we felt we could have competed with any team in the country."
The Blue Devils went 2-1 at the USA Baseball National High School Baseball Invitational in North Carolina, beating Gulliver Prep (Pinecrest, Fla.) and Lee County (Sanford, N.C.) while losing a 1-0 decision to Orange Lutheran (Orange, Calif.).
Columbus also split with Georgia's largest class (AAAAA) champion Parkview (Lilburn, Ga.), beat AAAAA state runner-up Brookwood (Snellville, Ga.) and defeated a Florida Class 6A state runner-up Pace (Fla.). In addition, the team went 4-1 against Troup County (LaGrange, Ga.), with the only loss coming in their best-of-three state semifinal series.
"The schedule definitely helped us reach our goals," Howard said. "The players also took charge and left their own legacy with three straight state titles."
Those players included seniors Kyle Carter and JT Phillips, who played as freshmen on the 33-4 team in 2009 that finished as state runner-up. The two University of Georgia recruits also were teammates on the 2006 Columbus team that captured a Little League World Series title.
Carter, a left-handed pitcher/center fielder, was 12-2 on the mound with a 0.98 ERA. He batted .302 with 14 homers and 31 RBIs. Phillips, who played third base and shortstop when not pitching, batted .453 with six homers. He was 10-1 on the mound with a 0.71 ERA.
The third pitcher in the rotation was Avery Seckinger, who will be a walk-on candidate at Georgia. Seckinger went 5-1 and was one of the team's most improved players, according to Howard.
Another improved player this season was senior third baseman and Missouri recruit Josh Lester, who batted .321. Lester and fellow senior Ryan Lang also were members of the 2006 Little League World Series title team.
The only non-senior in the lineup, junior infielder Hunter Swilling, will return next season as the Blue Devils return to Class AAAA, where they competed before dropping to Class AAA in 2005.
While the players may change at Columbus, the head coach who's guided the school to a dozen state crowns and six state runner-up finishes remains the same.
You can now add ESPNHS National Baseball Coach of the Year honors to Howard's résumé, too.