SHELLMAN -- Randolph Southern coach Seth Howell had a daunting task when he came to Shellman this year and was asked to take over the baseball program.
After all, the Patriots were fresh off winning the GISA Class A State Championship -- but were losing their head coach, Tim Goodin -- who bolted to take over the football and baseball program at Southland -- and Howell's new team was devoid of a number of seniors who were graduating.
To make matters even more difficult? Some of the players from the state title team in 2009 didn't even come out for baseball this year.
But here the Patriots are again, back in the state playoffs, looking for No. 2 -- and under a coach who thinks they have a decent shot at getting it.
"I think we've done fairly well," Howell said Thursday on the eve of the No. 3-seeded Patriots' opening series of their title defense against No. 2 seed David Emanuel. "We don't talk about the state title season that much, but I do remind the kids quite often -- especially when they have an off game -- 'Hey, look: You're the defending state champs. Now go out there and play like it.' "
The Patriots come in with far less credentials than last year, posting just a 4-4 region record and finishing the regular season 9-7 overall.
But there are some key cogs back from last season, including Michael Ledford, Alex Weeks, Jon Floyd and Tanner Stone. Ledford has done plenty of damage again this season with his bat, hitting .408 with two HRs with a .714 slugging percentage, while Floyd has a .518 on-base-percentage. But there is also new blood, like Andrew Bacon, who is hitting .439 on the season and is the team's new ace with a 1.05 ERA. Bacon will start Game 1 today, while Weeks (1.68 ERA) will start Game 2.
But does Howell think he'll have enough fire power to pull off a state title for a second straight year?
Well, if the Patriots were only being judged on confidence, they'd have the second state title already on display in Shellman.
"I think our region was stronger than any in the state," said Howell, whose team beat fellow Region 3-A rival, Terrell Academy in the state final last season. "So that leaves me feeling confident. I think we're going to go up (to DEA) and come back with a win.
"The kids are confident and motivated -- just like I am. I just hope it doesn't come back to bite us in the butt."
DWS OPENS AT HOME:
The Deerfield-Windsor baseball team has entered the GISA Class AAA state playoffs three years in a row as the defending region champs -- but has zero state titles in that span to show for it.
DWS coach Rod Murray and the Knights hope that's about to change.
With a 15-4 overall record and nearly unblemished region mark of 7-1, the No. 1 seeded Knights open the state playoffs today at home against No. 4 seed Mount Vernon after losing in the Final Four a year ago, and finishing state runner-up in 2008.
"It's just one game, one series at a time," Murray said. "We need our older guys to lead by example -- and (if they do) -- I think we'll be OK."
Specifically Banks Kinslow, who has been on all those teams, and newcomer Chris Moates. Moates leads the team in HRs (6) and Kinslow has the best record on the mound this season at 8-1.
Moates will pitch Game 1 today, while Kinslow will get the nod in Game 2.
"Experience pays off," Murray said. "And that's what we're counting on."