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GISA CLASS A STATE BASEBALL PLAYOFFS: Randolph Southern out for revenge in Final Four against local rival Crisp Academy

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

SHELLMAN -- The magic number for the Randolph Southern Patriots is 4.

Behind Jon Floyd's bat, they've won four straight games in the playoffs, and they're four wins away from a state title.

They're in the Final Four for the first time since they won it all in 2009, and, believe it or not, they started the postseason run as a No. 4 seed.

And here's the best part: They won just four games during the regular season.

Doesn't matter. Doesn't mean a thing. And that's the attitude they will take to the diamond today when they meet Crisp Academy in a doubleheader that begins at 2 p.m. to start the best-of-three series.

If the series isn't settled in two games, it would continue at 11 a.m. on Saturday, and will send the winner to the GISA Class A state championship game.

"Everybody keeps asking us, 'How did you get to the Final Four?' " said Floyd, Randolph's hard-hitting shortstop. "But we're here, and we've got nothing to lose.''

Floyd''s right. Crisp has everything to lose. The Wildcats (14-7) are huge favorites. They finished second in the state last year and won the Region 1-A race that includes Westwood, which is one win away from reaching the state title game after beating Memorial Day, 14-0, on Thursday, and Randolph Southern, which split with Westwood, but lost to Crisp, 6-1, and 16-0.

Crisp beat Westminster Christian 10-0, and 15-0 to reach the Final Four, and Patrick Fay pitched a no-hitter in the opener. Crisp pitchers combined for a no-hitter the last time the Wildcats played Randolph Southern, which is only 8-12 for the season.

"It was just one of those days,'' Randolph Southern coach Tommy Owen said. "I don't think John Smoltz could have beaten Crisp that day. Everything they hit just fell in or was just out of our reach, and everything we hit was right at them.''

The Patriots have amnesia.

"I forgot about that game the minute it was over,'' said catcher Blake Martin, one of three seniors. "That game is in the past.''

Senior Daylon Blanton, Randolph's ace who will start the opener today, couldn't care less about what happened in that game.

"I really have forgotten that game,'' Blanton said. "We have come a long way. Nobody expected us to do anything at the beginning of the season, and we're in the Final Four. I think our young players were intimidated at the beginning of the year, but now everybody is hitting. It's contagious. Our whole lineup is hitting.''

The two teams took opposite roads to get to this game.

Crisp came back this year looking to win a state title. Randolph came back looking to find a starting lineup. Floyd was the only starter back from last year's team, and Owen landed the job as the first-year coach, falling right out of the sky.

Owen, who dusts crops for a living, was flying over John Lamb's peanut and cotton fields one afternoon. Lamb was talking with his brother, Marshall, who is involved with the school board and whose son Blake is a sophomore outfielder on the baseball team.

John turned to his brother and said: "There's your new baseball coach, right there,'' pointing to Owen's plane above.

Why not? Owen has baseball in his veins, a tough, heads-up catcher who played the game hard and played the game right. He was good enough to catch for Georgia's 1990 national championship team, and was drafted by the Braves out of college. Owen spent three years in the minors.

"I enjoyed it,'' he said. "I played with a lot of guys who ended up in the big leagues. It's just not a very glamorous life. There's a lot of pizza-eating, a lot of bus riding and a lot of small unlit ballparks. After three years they told me they didn't think I was cut out to play in the majors and they sent me home.''

Owen spent the next 10 years as a state trooper, then took to the air, dusting crops in Southwest Georgia. But he still loves the game, and at 42 he became a coach for a team with one starter, three seniors and a dugout full of sophomores.

"He knows the game. He's played it,'' Floyd said. "He knows how to manage a game. This team has come so far from the beginning of the year until now. It's like night and day. He's really a great coach. He made a difference.''

Owen was patient, and he let his kids grow up on the diamond. He starts six sophomores, and has recently inserted an eighth-grader -- Jared Sauls -- at third base when Blanton pitches.

Floyd has led the way. He hit .490 during the season and is now batting .500 with eight doubles, four triples and 23 RBI. Blanton is hitting .357 with three doubles and 14 RBI, but the Patriots are winning because everyone is hitting better now than early in the year.

"We've really grown up,'' Owen said. "They're a lot more patient at the plate, and we're playing a lot better in the field. That's been the key.

"We're going to swing the bats. The difference now is we're not letting the other team get four, five, six outs an innings.''

The real magic number at Randolph is 40. That's how many errors the Patriots made in their 4-12 season. They have made just one error in their 4-0 playoff run.

"They are really a good team,'' Westwood coach Al Timmerman said. "They are kind of their own worst enemy. When they don't make errors they are really a good team and tough to beat.''

Part of that upgrade in fielding is attitude, a growing confidence that this team belongs, regardless of the record.

"We've got confidence now,'' Floyd said. "Before we were making errors, and just not making routine plays. But we're playing with confidence now and we're a much better fielding team.''

Crisp knows it will face a better team today.

"It's true that Randolph Southern doesn't have a real good record, but when they've had to win to keep their season going they've done so,'' Crisp coach Brett Freeman told the Cordele Dispatch. "The fact that they're still alive in the state playoffs is a tribute to coach Owen, his staff and the players themselves. We certainly can't afford to take them lightly, even though we've already beaten them twice this season.''

Owen said his team's 4-12 start was misleading.

"We just couldn't get a break in a lot of those games,'' he said. "Nobody is giving us a chance, but with a couple of breaks here and there we could have been right with them (at the top of the region race). We can play with them.''

The Patriots proved that in the playoffs, beating No. 1 seed Solid Rock, 26-0 and 15-0, and then handling top-seeded David Emanuel 8-1 and 6-2 last week. They're playing losoe and easy, relaxed and with the idea it could be their time -- right now.

"We've been the underdogs all year,'' Blanton said. "We like it. Everybody is expecting Crisp to win. That takes a lot of pressure off us and puts the pressure on them.''

Blanton said Randolph is a different team now because the young players have all stepped up mentally and physically.

"Our young batters were going up there scared at the beginning of the year, but not any more,'' Blanton said. "We started hitting against Solid Rock and haven't stopped. We don't let up. We just keep scoring runs.''

And they know more than anything that "We've got nothing to lose,'' Floyd said.

That may be the secret for this young team and first-year coach who have come together at the perfect time.