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Knights hope they can solve the Smelter riddle

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ALBANY -- Something was odd about Deerfield-Windsor coach Rod Murray's positioning on the field during Knights' batting practice this week.

Instead of the usual 60 feet, six inches from the rubber to home plate, Murray was standing behind a pitching screen at about 40 feet from home heaving fastballs as if he were still in college.

"He's usually not (throwing) that fast," Knights senior shortstop Michael Matthews said. "He's just getting us ready."

Ready for what? Nolan Ryan? Well, not quite -- but close.

Try Tattnall Square ace DeAndre Smelter, the hard-throwing hurler Deerfield has yet to figure out.

The Knights will host the Elite Eight round of the GISA Class AAA playoffs beginning with the first game of a best-of-three series today against the Trojans at 5 p.m. Game 1 will be at 10 a.m., followed immediately by Game 3, in necessary.

To put it nicely, the Trojans have been a thorn in Deerfield's side the past two years. Tattnall eliminated the Knights in the state title game in 2008 and knocked them out in the Final Four last season. And a big art of that pain in the Knights' neck has been the Trojans' ace/slugger Smelter.

Smelter's accolades have been well documented. He's all-state in basketball, football and baseball, where Smelter's mid-90s fastball will be his meal ticket. The Georgia Tech signee, now a senior, has been projected by some to be a first-round selection in June's Major League Baseball Draft.

It's that fastball that has the Knights working on bat speed this week, and since Murray doesn't throw close to 100 mph anymore -- or ever, for that matter -- he's tried to simulate Smelter's heat by zipping four-seamers from 40 feet.

"Over the last couple of years when we get ready to face Smelter, and they've got some other guys that can throw it hard too, that's one thing that we'll do," Murray said. "Try to speed the eye up, help them find the release point, speed the bat up a little bit, work on the opposite field (hitting)."

Still, the 38-year-old coach concedes his fastball won't quite duplicate that of a potential first-round pick.

"I'm getting old," Murray joked. "Nothing can simulate the real thing. It looks like the kid is throwing a golf ball up there instead of a baseball."

Deerfield actually beat Smelter in the Final Four series opener last year after the game was suspended due to rain, restarted in a different county, suspended again and finally completed two days later. The three-game series in Albany lasted seven days, but fortunately there is no rain forecast for today or Saturday.

Deerfield likely won't have to deal with the weather this year, but the Knights (17-4, Region 3-AAA No. 1) will have to contend with Smelter and the rest of the Trojans (15-10, Region 2-AAA No. 2).

"I don't know if (my batting average) is very high (against Smelter)," Matthews said. "He's a great pitcher, but we like the challenge."

As much as Trojans fans are probably tired of traveling to Albany, the Knights are equally as fed up with the results the past two seasons.

Tattnall handed Deerfield its only three losses the entire season two years ago and then pulled out a hard fought three-game series last year. The Trojans went on to win state championships each year.

"I'm just ready to beat them," Deerfield junior Banks Kinslow said.

Murray wouldn't say whether juniors Kinslow, Christopher Moates or Rhett Cooper would start today. Kinslow and Cooper have experienced the sting from playoff losses against Tattnall, while Moates is new to the rivalry. His teammates haven't had to fill him in on much.

"Two-time defending state champion," Moates said of the Trojans. "Nothing else really needs to be said."

Murray believes Tattnall's record is deceiving due to early losses at a border war tournament in Alabama. Deerfield also went 0-2 against Alabama schools during a spring break trip.

Either way, it's a playoff series with vengeance and rivalry stirred into one. Simply put, it's Tattnall.

"Anytime you're playing Tattnall in anything, you've got to bring it if you want to get them out of there," Murray said.