ATLANTA — Ayden Lockett took the stroll to the outfield in a big-league ballpark in consecutive seasons as a Buford sophomore. It never gets old.

He looks up to view an illustrious backdrop of new-age buildings, a mini skyscraper and a scene that thousands of people across the Southeast crave to be at each baseball season. Each time, a thought probably comes to mind.

This isn’t Gerald McQuaig Field.

“It’s fun. It’s a great atmosphere and I love to be here,” Lockett said. “It makes you a little nervous when you walk out here, but it starts to even out.”

Buford (17-7-1, 11-0 region 8-7A) got the privilege, which it does nearly every season due to head coach Stuart Chester’s relationship with the Atlanta Braves organization, to dig its cleats into the big-league turf. Chester viewed it as more of an “experience” for his team rather than a do-or-die game (mainly due to its non-region nature). Buford finished in a 3-3 tie with Mt. Paran after a thrilling ending in which the Wolves nearly eked out a win.

“We came out, got some adversity with playing a good group in Mt. Paran,” Chester told The North Gwinnett Voice after Saturday’s game. “Everybody off of the bench competed. It was a good day.”

Here are five things we learned from the late-season stalemate.

1. The play at the plate

Freshman infielder Ian Chafin chopped a two-out groundball to second as Buford had the bases loaded. At the time, the Wolves trailed Mt. Paran 3-2 and needed one run to knot the contest. They did that as Brayden Bickers safely slid home.

Buford wanted more.

Lockett had one set of directions: “Ball on the ground, you’re scoring no matter what,” the sophomore recalled his coach saying.

Mt. Paran’s second baseman ranged to his left. Bickers came home and Lockett raced behind him. Lockett said he didn’t take a second to look. He slid, but the umpire declared that the tag beat his bolting attempt. The umpires congregated for a long discussion as Lockett waved his arms in a “safe” motion the entire time, but the ruling didn’t change.

“In my mind, I thought I got there, but I wanted to get the game over with and secure the win,” Lockett said.

Added Chester: “We will get a whole lot more out of that than being up or down 5-0.”

2. Late offensive surge

Buford didn’t have a hit until the third inning when senior Nate Taylor recorded a single. It did, however, have a load of baserunners early in innings.

In each of the first four innings, the Wolves had a leadoff baserunner — two walks and two hit by pitches. Buford had a two-out rally in the fifth inning which was ended after sophomore Cam Wood was caught stealing third base.

Seemingly, Buford lacked offense against Mt. Paran and it could go quietly. However, once the opponent provided game pressure, the Wolves responded in the sixth inning (which has been the magic turn through the order over the past month).

With runners on the corners, Taylor squared for a nifty bunt hit that trickled towards the second baseman to score a run. After an Ethan Murray walk, Blake Russell hit a sacrifice fly to tie the game. After Mt. Paran scored a run on a wild pitch by Elliott, the thrilling play at the plate with the bases loaded concluded the contest.

“You’re facing seven different pitchers and you might get one at-bat every four innings,” Chester said. “It’s hard to find that rhythm. It’s almost like being on the bench and coming in to hit. We did what we needed to at the end, and that’s what we look for.”

3. Overcoming defensive lapses

Buford had two errors, a wild pitch and misplays by each of the corner outfielders against Mt. Paran. Some of those miscues resulted in runs. However, following those mistakes, the Wolves responded with crucial plays that stopped the game from getting away from them.

For example, after an error in the second inning from Murray, he answered. Mt. Paran hit into a 6-4-3 double play. Sophomore Kyle Krause followed it with a three-pitch strikeout.

“You’re going to make errors in the game of baseball,” Chester said. “The biggest thing is how respond and the decision you make — as a team — after that error. Are you going to rally together and say ‘That’s fine, flush it?’ An ability to overcome them speaks to the camaraderie of our locker room.”

4. Everyone gets a turn

Chester, who has taken his teams to the Braves’ stomping grounds since the franchise’s Turner Field days, doesn’t exclude anyone on the big stage. Everyone plays.

The box score is full of substitutions, courtesy runners and pinch hitters to empty out the bench. A different pitcher threw in each of the seven innings — senior Jacob Nixon, senior Damian Brown, junior Sohan Patel, sophomores Krause, Ryland Perry and Ryan Elliott.

Chester also utilized this approach because Buford won Friday against Collins Hill and plays four region games next week (three against Dacula and a make-up contest at Collins Hill).

“We can’t come out and burn anybody today (in a non-region game),” Chester said.

5. Making memories

Year after year, Buford makes the trip to the Braves’ big-league ballpark. Chester did so before taking the job at Buford at the helm of Cartersville High School.

In 2024, the Braves hosted 10 teams for a five-game weekend slate at Truist Park. There’s no qualification to play in the prestigious event, but instead it’s based on a rapport between the school and the organization. Last season, the park hosted the 7A state championship.

A source told The North Gwinnett Voice that in exchange for the school to be hosted and for the admission to be free to the public, the institution purchases around 2,500 tickets to re-sell and distribute around the community.

A smile appears on Chester’s face when discussing the value of playing in a non-region game at Truist Park. He puts his team through rigorous practices and uses a lot of uncommon practices, so he said this served as an opportunity for the Wolves “to have some fun.”

“It’s about the memories the kids will take with them and have for the rest of their life,” Chester said. “It doesn’t matter whether they make it in baseball or as the CEO of some company. It’ll be something they’ll remember forever, because they got to play in a great ballpark that’s not far removed from a World Series.”

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