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Salem baseball team looks for path to state tournament

CONYERS -- Cameron Gibson has come a long way in a little over one year.

Taking over in center field for the injured Josh Bailey, Gibson had a breakout sophomore campaign for the Seminoles, then starred on the Conyers Post 77 American Legion team that advanced to the Southeast Regional in Sumter, S.C. Along the way, Gibson has caught the attention of Division I scouts and also put himself in position for a possible high draft pick when his high school career ends after the 2011 season.

"He played in some very tough leagues in the summer and fall. I know there a lot of schools that would love to have him. He is a special player," said Salem coach Chad Kitchens.

But the 2010 Salem baseball team won't be all about Gibson. That's not to say the junior outfielder won't be looked at, along with Heritage senior Tyler Austin, as one of the top two players in the area, but the Seminoles have other weapons.

Junior second baseman Jimmy Gerard, who played with Gibson for a spell on the state title-winning legion team, junior shortstop Levi Bonilla, and seniors Wells Baldwin (third base) and Drew Patterson (first base) form a solid infield. While Bailey returns from injury and left fielder Kelsey Rudolph join Gibson in a strong outfield to go along with a number of promising youngsters, Kitchens has depth at several positions heading into his second season as head coach.

"I think we've come a long way in the kids buying in to our system. Every time a new coach comes in there is an adjustment period for everyone. I think we've gotten through that and are now starting to see some results," Kitchens said. "This team has worked extremely hard since last spring. They played together all summer and fall and did a great job with our off-season conditioning program."

Two big things have changed since last spring. The top of the rotation no longer has the luxury of calling on right-handed ace Brandon Crumbley, who is now at West Georgia, or John Muirhead, a dependable No. 2 during the Seminoles' 13-13 season. Gerard will be counted on again to fill a large role on the pitching staff, while three-sport star Jarrett Brown, Gazzara Mitchell, Bonilla and even Gibson are expected to log innings.

"We lost one of the greatest pitchers in Salem history in Crumbley and another senior who had a great year in Muirhead. However, we feel good about the crop of arms we have this year," Kitchens said.

The expectations haven't changed from year one to Kitchens' sequel as head coach: stay in the region playoff hunt all spring and earn a spot in the Class AAAA state playoffs. Last season's team finished four games back of the No. 4 spot despite an 11-9 league mark and with teams like Loganville, state champions two years ago and a top-4 finisher in 2009, and local foe Heritage at the top of the league, a trip to the state tournament won't be easy.

"We expect to be right in the middle of the playoff race just as we've been the past several years," Kitchens said. "I am very excited about this year. I am proud of the way the guys have worked in practice and the overall attitude displayed. If we can all stay on the same page and work hard for each other, things will fall into place."