What do Ken Griffey, Jr., Chipper Jones and Freddie Freeman all have in common?
Outside of being, or having been incredibly talented baseball players, all three are tremendous examples of how to swing the bat from the left side of the plate.
John Milledge Academy baseball student-athlete Brandon Bellflower and head coach Andy Bonifay turned to film of those three professionals and other left-handed hitting greats when tooling the senior first baseman’s swing this season.
“I had high expectations for him and he had high expectations of himself,” Bonifay said. “When good things started to happen for him I wouldn’t say I was surprised, it was more about his hard work paying off.”
Bellflower stands a slender 6 feet, 4 inches tall in the left-handed batter’s box. He has never had trouble hitting the baseball in his baseball career, but the lanky lefty wanted to expand his hitting game in his final go-round as a high schooler. The first baseman felt pretty set on his defensive capabilities, a point that’s difficult to argue against as he boasted a .992 fielding percentage as a junior and eventually further supported by his .988 mark as a senior. Bellflower did feel, though, that he had room to improve with his bat. At the plate, he confesses to having been an “oppo” guy in the past. His would close off in his swing, causing the ball to be pushed into left-center or left field. That’s not necessarily a bad trait to have, as shown by Bellflower’s game-winning hit in the GISA AAA state championship two years ago when he perfectly placed the ball in front of the opposing left fielder, knocking in his teammate for the Game 3-clinching run. What closing off does do though is leave a batter vulnerable to inside pitches, something both player and coach wanted to correct.
Bellflower and Bonifay watched film, perhaps giving the senior flashbacks to his time as quarterback on the football field, and hit the cage to tool and nitpick the player’s swing. In watching the aforementioned hitting greats and others, mentor and student began focusing on attack angle.
“With angles, you can hit the ball with power to both sides of the field,” Bellflower said. “We spent a lot of time in the cage working to make my swing as perfect as possible. I don’t think I’d be able to say I’m All-County Player of the Year without Coach Bonifay.”
Bellflower put that acute sense of swing to use in a big way this season, and the numbers really speak for themselves. After hitting a solid .312 as a junior, he jumped his average all the way up to .425 in 2019, gathering 34 hits, two home runs, and 29 RBIs along the way. Those numbers were good enough to put Bellflower as tops in every major hitting category on a team that finished the season as Region 4-AAA champions and state runners-up while earning himself All-State and All-Region honors. The plan at the start of the season was to have the senior lefty as another pitching option, but tendonitis rained on that parade until the regular season was nearly over. Once he felt up to it, Bellflower began throwing from the mound and eventually became that extra arm the Trojans needed to help the team in its postseason push.
“He was definitely our most valuable player, especially when he got on the mound for us late in the season,” Bonifay said. “He got a lot of respect in our league. People knew who he was by the end of the year, so they’d have to prepare around him. Once a player feels it, then it’s real and he believes it. That’s when you’ve accomplished something.”
Although Bellflower was consistent from the plate all season long, John Milledge’s success as a team wasn’t always a certainty. With so many players coming to the diamond late from the basketball court it took longer than Bonifay would have liked for everything to click. The non-obtuse second-year head coach saw an opportunity to shake up the lineup. Bellflower was moved from third to second in the lineup. That move coupled with the team’s ability to click after having seen more live pitching proved to be the winning equation for the Trojans this season.
“(Taylor) Dixon was a great leadoff hitter for us and he was real good on the bases,” Bonifay said. “It was almost a sure shot that he could get into scoring position, especially early in the game. So Brandon was there right after him for that early-RBI opportunity.”
“If I could get to second and get Taylor to third or get Taylor around and get myself to second our odds of getting two runs the first inning, which is our goal every inning, were always good with the Prestwoods coming up behind me,” Bellflower added.
The Trojans won five of their last six in the regular season, clinching the region championship along the way to position themselves nicely for the playoffs. They swept their way through the first two rounds, and Bellflower provided some fireworks in both series. In Game 2 of the opening series with Frederica, the senior slugger put an attack angle to good use and sent a three-run shot over the JMA centerfield fence as part of a 15-run barrage in the seventh inning. Bellflower repeated the feat in the second round against Southland, notching the only two home runs of his varsity career in his final postseason.
Asked what felt better, his first high school home run or the state championship clincher his sophomore year, Bellflower correctly replied, “That ring speaks more than that home run that everybody will forget in six years.”
The senior lefty was called upon to pitch in the state semifinals at Westfield. The team was in dire need of an arm, and Bellflower answered the call in a big way, pitching the final six innings of Game 3 that was split up over two days thanks to the rain. Those six innings thrown doubled his output for the season, and he struck out seven batters to help his team to the final round.
Bellflower and a few of the more seasoned Trojans found themselves in a familiar position at season’s end — playing for a state championship at Mercer University’s OrthoGeorgia Park. Many of those who weren’t on that 2017 state championship baseball team had played on Mercer’s football field back in the fall when they were trying for a football title.
“You still get those same chills, but they wear off after the first pitch,” Bellflower said comparing his two trips to the baseball championship series. “Everyone on the baseball team that plays football too had already been in a big spot like that, so I didn’t think the pressure was going to get to us. I feel like we put up a good fight, it just wasn’t meant to be.”
John Milledge took fellow finalist Dominion Christian the distance but lost the series-deciding Game 3, 2-1.
“It was tough,” the now-John Milledge graduate said of the championship loss. “I live by the motto, ‘No what-ifs.’ My dad taught me that a long time ago, so I still say that now. I feel like I put it all out on the table. It’s tough, don’t get me wrong, but as long as you have no regrets you’ve done all you could do.”
A standout on the football field as well as the baseball diamond, Bellflower’s college path seemed pretty well laid out as he accepted an offer to play quarterback at LaGrange College back in February. That changed come spring though as some college baseball programs took notice of his prowess with the bat and the glove. After careful consideration, Bellflower opted to go the baseball route, accepting a spot with Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton.
“They (LaGrange) gave me a good offer, but after having the year I did in baseball ABAC came to me and gave an even better offer that was hard to turn down,” Bellflower said candidly. “I feel like baseball’s my route to go.”
“We had a lot of conversations,” Bonifay said. “We talked about how he has a real high ceiling in baseball because he’s gotten better every year, and I believe that’ll keep happening. I’m just glad it worked out for him because I really want to see him keep playing baseball.”
Bellflower will saddle up and be an ABAC Stallion for two years as he looks to further refine his game while knocking out his core courses. He hopes to later transfer and continue playing baseball at a four-year program in the future.
2019 All-County Baseball Team
- Brandon Bellflower (JMA): senior 1B/P, 2019 All-County Player of the Year, GISA AAA All-State, All-Region 4-AAA, .425 average, .570 OBP, 2 HR, 7 2B, 2 3B, 34 total hits, 29 RBIs, 23 BB, .988 fielding percentage, 2-0 pitching record, 2/2 in save opportunities, 26 Ks over 18.2 innings pitched with a 1.125 ERA, .113 batting average against
- Lectavius Austin (BHS): senior INF/P, GHSA first team All-Region 3-AAAA pitcher, second team All-Region SS, .375 average, .462 OBP, .536 slugging, .997 OPS, 21 hits, 5 2B, 2 3B, 8 RBIs, 19 runs scored, struck out only five times this season
- Ryan Barsby (GMC): junior CF, GHSA first team All-Region 7-A, .367 average, 15 RBIs, 1 3B, 6 2B, 22 BB, .485 OBP
- Taylor Dixon (JMA): sophomore 2B, GISA All-Region 4-AAA, .329 average, .482 OBP, 28 runs scored, 5 2B, 14 SB
- Jacob Marshall (GMC): senior INF/P, GHSA first team All-Region 7-A, .402 average, 1 HR, 1 3B, 4 2B, 37 total hits, 27 RBIs, .517 OBP, 22 BB, 7-2 pitching record, 2.69 ERA, 91 Ks over 65 innings pitched
- Patrick McDonel (JMA): sophomore LF, GISA All-Region 4-AAA, .349 average, .500 OBP, 25 runs scored, 8/8 SB, 5 outfield assists
- Jacob Prestwood (JMA): senior OF/P, GISA AAA All-State, All-Region 4-AAA, .394 average, .505 OBP, 4 2B, 21 RBIs, 4-1 on the mound with 21 Ks over 27.2 innings pitched
- Jared Prestwood (JMA): senior INF/P, GISA AAA All-State, All-Region 4-AAA, .337 average, 20 RBIs, 14 SB, 32 total hits, 6-4 on the mound with 50 Ks over 68.2 innings pitched, 2.85 ERA, .225 batting average against, 4-0 pitching record in region play
- Dylan Sallad (BHS): senior OF/P, GHSA first team All-Region 3-AAAA outfielder, .354 average, .537 OBP, .933 OPS, 2 2B, 20 runs scored
- Mason Seymour (GMC): sophomore UT, GHSA first team All-Region 7-A, .333 average, 1 3B, 3 2B, 23 RBIs, .459 OBP, 21 BB
- Justin Alford (GMC): junior INF/P, .308 average, 2 2B, 21 RBIs, .485 OBP, 23 BB
- Seth Bowden (JMA): senior 3B, GISA All-Region 4-AAA, .277 average, 12 RBIs, struck out only seven times in 100 plate appearances
- Jackson Carter (JMA): junior P, GISA All-Region 4-AAA, four wins on the mound, 4/4 in save opportunities, 49 Ks over 44.2 innings pitched, 2.66 ERA
- Carson Dyer (JMA): sophomore DH, .321 average, 4 2B, 17 RBIs
- Mike Jones (BHS): sophomore INF/P, .204 average, 3 2B, 2 3B, 6 runs scored
- Dalton Prestridge (JMA): junior C, .324 average, .483 OBP, 4 2B, 14 RBIs, .452 average in the state playoffs, committed zero errors behind the plate this season
- Nathan Rouse (BHS): junior, 1B/P, GHSA second team All-Region 3-AAAA DH/P, .333 average, .511 OBP, .364 slugging, .875 OPS
- Keishawn Smith (BHS): freshman INF, .250 average, 8 RBIs, 1 2B, 4 runs scored
- Anquez Thomas (BHS): senior INF, .294 average, .412 slugging, 14 RBIs, 12 runs scored, 4 2B