TUNNEL HILL -- It isn't easy to improve upon a player-of-the-year season, but that's just what Northwest Whitfield High School's Hank Bearden did this spring.
Bearden, a junior pitcher and first basemen for Northwest, has been named the Daily Citizen-News All-Area Baseball Player of the Year for the second year in a row. According to his teammate and older brother Jake Bearden the award is well deserved.
"It couldn't go to a better dude," Jake Bearden said. "He's really humble about how good he is."
Whether on the mound or at the plate, Hank Bearden stood out among his peers this season. With a bat in his hand, Bearden led the area with five home runs, while tallying 26 RBIs and posting a 1.120 OPS -- on-base percentage plus slugging percentage. His hits came in clutch moments, too, as was displayed when he belted a hanging breaking ball over the right field fence to defeat region rival Southeast Whitfield in walk-off fashion late in the season.
According to Jake Bearden, when the Bruins needed a big hit, there wasn't any doubt in the dugout who would be the one to step up.
"Some of the stuff he does, it kind of blows my mind," Jake Bearden said. "Some of the games he seems to play with no pressure. When we really needed a hit, we all kind of knew Hank would be the one to get it."
Bearden improved his batting average from his sophomore season from .351 to .366 and bumped his home run total up by three from a season ago. The increase in offensive power production for the left-handed swinging junior told one tale, but it's his growth on the mound which has scouts keeping tabs on the right-handed throwing pitcher.
While Bearden was unable to match the 92 strikeouts in 62 and 2/3 innings he posted as a sophomore, he did manage to strike out 89 batters in 54 and 2/3 innings while improving his record from 5-5 to 7-2. He also dropped his earned run average from 2.01 to 1.66, and heading into the summer he said he's focused on making even bigger strides.
"My biggest thing right now is probably trying to gain more velocity on my pitches," Bearden said. "This is a big summer for me because after the (Major League Baseball) draft, that's when teams and scouts will start looking at guys for next year."
Bearden has reason to have an eye on this summer. The University of Georgia commit currently holds a 9.5 rating from PerfectGame.org, with those rated at nine projected as "potential top 10 round picks and/or highest level college prospects" and those rated at 10 projected as "potential very high draft picks and/or Elite level college prospects." Bearden is also rated as the No. 1-ranked right-handed pitcher in the state for the class of 2020 and the No. 32 overall prospect in the country according to ProspectsUSA.org.
When asked which he prefers between hitting and pitching, Bearden is quick to answer.
"It's pitching, yeah, it's pitching," Bearden said. "Striking someone out is just more fun."
Bearden plays his summer ball with the DBR Elite based out of Atlanta, and said he and the team will play in six to seven tournaments this summer. The 6-foot, 180-pound rising senior will also attend the 2019 Perfect Game National Showcase in Phoenix, Arizona held June 11-15. The event is widely regarded as the premier showcase event in all of amateur baseball with 352 former participants having played in Major League Baseball and 2,310 having been selected in the MLB Draft. In last year's draft, 37 of the 78 players taken on the first day -- the top two rounds -- had previously attended a Perfect Game National Showcase.
The Northwest baseball team won the Region 6-4A title this past season, and Bearden was on the mound for the clinching game against Southeast Whitfield. He said accomplishing the team goal of winning a region was his highlight of the season. He also said Northwest's 1-0 victory against Dalton, in which he pitched six innings allowing one hit while striking out 12, was possibly the best he's ever felt on the mound.
"Everything was working for me that game," Bearden said. "It was really fun."
Jake Bearden, who graduated on Saturday from Northwest and will head to Georgia Gwinnett College this summer to begin his college baseball career, said he always knew his younger brother was going to be a good player. Jake said he's seen growth in his brother both on and off the field over the past four years, but said while Hank's demeanor seems laid back, there's a fiery competitor just below the surface.
"The thing that make him great is he's never gonna give up and he's always gonna battle," Jake Bearden said. "He likes to win and he's always working to get better. He does a lot of stuff to get better that people don't know about. He's not going to let anyone outwork him."