The Crisp County baseball team is having the season of a lifetime, and coach Bill Pate said it’s because his kids are “friends, family, brothers, everything.” (Melanie Yawn/Special to The Herald)
CORDELE — No one is quite sure where the light came from, but they know it’s there.
It might have been born a year ago on the tear-stained ground at Crisp County, where the kids on this team hurt so much after a playoff loss to West Laurens they just let everything go.
Or it might have been on a quiet bus ride back from Valdosta last summer, a ride that changed everything — mind and matter — for a team looking for an identity.
Or it might have been there all along, hidden in the history of what they have together and surely what they have now.
They can’t see it, but the kids at Crisp feel it.
It’s that intangible that some teams find, that heart, that soul, that magic that comes like a light from nowhere and illuminates a team, a season and sometimes — just sometimes — a ride that lingers for a lifetime.
Whatever you call it, the Crisp kids have it, embracing it and each other in the most memorable baseball season of their lives.
“I’ve been coaching 31 years, and I’ve coached five different sports,’’ Crisp County baseball coach Bill Pate said. “And this is the first group that is truly one. They’re friends, family, brothers, everything.’’
And they’re undefeated.
The Cougars open the Class AAA playoffs this week with a 25-0 record, a record that not many thought would be possible, not this year, not from this team.
No, these were the leftovers, the ones who filled in the gaps a year ago when Crisp had one of its best seasons in years, a 25-5 run that ended in the second round of the playoffs. That’s where glory was supposed to end — at least that’s what these kids heard — because the big guns were leaving.
“Nobody thought we would be very good,’’ said Luke Whitman, a senior centerfielder, clutch hitter and pitcher. “We lost all those seniors from last year, and people were down on us.’’
That’s what they heard from friends, students and folks in the community.
“We heard that a lot,’’ first baseman Drake Dozier said.
“Everyone said those guys couldn’t be replaced,’’ said pitcher Davis Adkins, a senior.
Sure, why not? J.D. Slade, the ace of the staff, was gone. Will Jones, the biggest home run hitter to go deep in a long time at Crisp, took his big bat and graduated, and then there was Duff Phinney — a man behind the plate.
The big Cougars were gone, and the pups had to take over.
“Nobody would have believed we could go undefeated,’’ Whitman said. “Look at the guys we lost. We thought we would have a good team, but nobody else did.’’
Well, a few believed.
Inspiration can come from the strangest of places. And for Crisp, it came from the gridiron. Van Williams, a tailback who was Crisp’s biggest star on Friday nights, was this team’s biggest fan. Williams played one year of baseball and was a backup on last year’s team before he graduated.
But before he left, he had something to say. When the season ended, Williams gave a pep-talk — well, it was a lot more than a pep talk — to the kids who would be coming back to the diamond.
“He really put it on our hearts,’’ Whitman said. “He really got to us. He said he could tell that we had something special. We have a team that’s like a family, and he said when you have that you can do anything. He made us feel special.’’
Not a bad option play from Williams, whose words stayed with his team that left last season in pain. They cried, and cried hard when the season ended in the playoffs, and dreamed of getting back for another run.
“We cried that day,’’ Dozier said. “That game went by so fast and when we lost there were a lot of tears. Nobody could talk.’’
“We were squalling,’’ Whitman said. “It was hard on us.’’
But from heartache came a team full of heart, and through the tears and the speech emerged this year’s beast of a ball club, this perfect 25-0 team that has caught the attention of not only the state but the nation. The Cougars are ranked No. 22 in the country in ESPN’s Top 50 poll. That’s the good news. The bad news? Two teams in Georgia are ranked ahead of them nationally. The worst news? Both teams compete in Class AAA.
Gainesville is ranked No. 1 in the Class AAA state poll and No. 3 in the nation, and Columbus is ranked No. 2 in the Class AAA state poll and No. 8 in nation. There’s no break in the bracket for Crisp, either. The Cougars, who are ranked No. 3 in the state, would have to beat both to win a state championship, with a possible showdown with Columbus in the semifinals and a possible state title matchup against Gainesville.
The Cougars believe they can win.
That belief comes — from of all places — a bus.
That’s where the Crisp kids were when the metamorphosis hit them. It was the beginning of summer league ball for the Cougars, and they looked anything but perfect in their first two games in Valdosta. The bus coming home was so quiet you could hear the team’s batting average drop, and it looked like it might be a long summer — and an even longer high school season ahead.
Pate broke the silence.
“I said, ‘Look guys, those guys are gone. You keep waiting for J.D. and for Will to do it, and they’re not here,’ ’’ Pate said. “I told them, ‘This is it. This is your team. You have to do it. You can’t wait on them to do it. You have to make up your mind that you are going to do it.’
“The next day, they were a totally different group,’’ Pate said. “They made up their mind. They play hard and they play their hearts out. This is their team and this has been their season. They put their heart and soul into it.’’
There have been those moments, those come-from-behind moments, and those hang-on-for-dear-life moments, but the Cougars have survived by doing one thing — leaning on each other.
“It hasn’t been one guy, but it’s been everyone,’’ Pate said. “It seems like a different guy comes through almost every game.’’
That’s their secret to being unbeaten. They have not only shared the load but have shared the joy, and it’s brought them closer. They were already pretty close. Most of them played on the same team 10 years ago in Little League when they won the district and state title.
The kids still call Robert Tyler, a hard-throwing junior, “Frosty,’’ a name he picked up when he was a kid playing sandlot ball in Cordele with the same kids he is trying to make history with this season.
They call the other ace of the staff, Adkins, “Day-Day,” because they called him that when he was a kid growing up — long before he could cut a fastball or bend a slider like a pretzel.
They’ve shared a lot, but there’s been nothing like this season.
“We’re so close,’’ said second baseman Chris Yawn, another senior who has been on the ride of a lifetime. “It’s been a special season, and we know we have the potential to go deeper in the playoffs than ever. I didn’t predict we would go 25-0, but I felt like we could do it. We were waiting to get that first loss, and it never came.’’
That bond has grown into confidence.
“We’re close, real close,’’ Dozier said. “We feel like we have something special.’’
Crisp County won the state title back in 1962, and every kid on this team can point to the sign in the outfield that tells the story of that team. Those Cougars went 14-2. Tyler and Adkins are a combined 16-0.
Tyler's nickname “Frosty” is one of those comical misnomers, because he’s the one who brings the heat. His fastball has been clocked at 93-94 mph (call it Frosty’s dry-ice fastball), and just about every big baseball college program in the nation is looking at him. Georgia, Georgia Tech, Florida State, Alabama and others have shown interest. Tyler is only a junior.
He’s 7-0 with one save and a 0.73 ERA. He’s averaging 10.9 strikeouts a game, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is off the charts. He has 66 strikeouts in 47 innings and has walked only 11 batters all season.
Adkins is the other half of this 1-2 punch that has knocked out every team it has faced. He’s 9-0 with one save and an ERA that’s so small it’s almost impossible to see — a mind-boggling 0.34.
He shares the same dislike for walks as Tyler and has put only 12 batters on all season. He’s averaging 9.9 strikeouts a game, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is also phenomenal. He has 59 Ks and a dozen walks in 42 innings.
While Frosty brings the heat, Day-Day taunts and teases and makes the ball dance with an array of pitches, including a nasty slider that no batter wants to see, and few ever hit.
That’s the top of the rotation that includes Tyler’s younger brother, Stewart, a freshman who is 4-0 with a 0.86 ERA and has a whopping 42 Ks in just 24 innings (12.1 strikeouts a game), and the Whitman brothers, Landon (2-0 with three saves and a 0.66 ERA) and Luke (3-0 with a 0.42 ERA).
“We’ve got a lot of pitching depth,’’ Pate said. “And (Tyler and Davis) throw strikes. Their walks-to-strikeout (ratios are) amazing, just amazing, especially for Davis because he’s not a power pitcher. He’s a finesse pitcher. His slider is his money pitch. Robert is a power pitcher and a lot of schools are looking at him. They don’t give up much. Luke Whitman, our center fielder, was saying that last year he got about 25 put-outs in center, and this year he hardly ever sees the ball.’’
“It gets boring out there with those two pitching,’’ he said. “I hardly get any action this year. But it’s a great feeling when they are pitching.’’
Dozier, who leads the team in hitting with a .392 batting average, said he loves it when Tyler and Adkins pitch.
“I feel like we can win every game when they’re pitching,’’ Dozier said. “You’re never nervous. You’re always confident.’’
The team is hitting above .300, and Pate said this year’s defense has been incredible as well. The Cougars simply do whatever they have to do.
“Drake was out for a couple of weeks and Billy Joe Baker, who had never played first base, stepped right in and played really well there. Then our catcher was out for a game and Billy Joe was our catcher. It’s been like that with this team, different guys stepping up all year.’’
Pate has coached five players who made it to the majors, including J.D. Drew when they were together at Lowndes High School, but he points to this year’s Crisp team as the most unique group he has ever coached. Their spirit and heart — and most of all — their togetherness makes these kids special.
“Everybody has stepped up at one time or another,’’ Tyler said. “It’s somebody different every game.’’
They have big bats up and down the lineup. Taylor Wall leads the team in hits with 29 and runs with 31. He’s batting .387. Kerry Herrington (.370 with two homers), Chris McGinnis (.355) and Tyler have all had big years at the plate. Tyler leads the team in doubles (seven), triples (three) and home runs (three), and is hitting .377. He also leads the team with 24 RBI. Dozier has driven in 22 runs and Herrington and Stewart Tyler have 17 RBI each.
It has been a magical year, but it’s a season no one wants to see end.
The playoffs are finally here, and the Crisp kids know better than anyone that it’s a brand new season and a new ride — one they hope leads to a state title.
“It’s going to be a ride,’’ Whitman said. “It’s going to be tough, but we know as long as we stick together we can do it.’’