Crisp County head baseball coach Bill Pate has one of the hottest teams in Georgia at 27-0 and ranked No. 10 in the ESPN's Top 50 poll, but the Cougars have their work cut out for them today in the GHSA Class AAA Sweet 16 in Cordele, where they'll host Allatoona, which has a pitching staff as fine as any in the state. (Harvey Simpson/Cordele Dispatch)
DONALSONVILLE — They’re here, right here in the second round of the playoffs looking for more in a season that has blossomed its way to the Sweet 16.
A year after getting their hearts broken in a tough first-round, three-game series loss to Savannah Christian, Seminole’s Indians look better than ever as they head into today’s doubleheader against Schley County in the Class A state playoffs that begins at 4:30 p.m. in Donalsonville.
“It’s a lot of the same kids, but it’s a different team,’’ said Truette Johnson, who didn’t know what he had when the season started. “At the beginning of the year I didn’t think this year’s team was as good as last year’s. I just didn’t know.”
Johnson then added: “Justin Burke was coming back from Tommy John surgery, and we started off the season by losing three of our first four games.’’
Then something happened.
Seminole got hot and stayed on fire, The Indians have won 22 of their last 23 games, including a sweep against Clinch County in the first round. They don’t seem to have as much power as they had a year ago, but Johnson said it doesn’t matter.
“They just find a way to win,’’ he said. “We might not get as many hits as the other team, and we might make more errors than the other team, but these kids find a way to win. They’re just competitors.
“It’s a different style this year. We’ve had to find a way to manufacture runs. I knew we were going to struggle in the region, but we won a lot of close games.’’
The Indians, who went unbeaten in the region and are 23-4, also have pitching. Burke, who is also the team’s catcher, is 5-0 with a 1.92 ERA and has struck out 44 batters in just 39 innings. Josh Buczek is 5-2 with four saves. He has a 2.06 ERA and has 41 Ks in 41 1/3 innings.
They don’t hit many home runs (Burke and Buczek have one each, Chris Brown has two and Dee Virgin has four homers), but Burke has scored 36 runs and Buczek has scored 35. Virgin, who can fly, has scored 42 runs and Brown has come home 28 times.
Buczek has been one of the toughest outs in Southwest Georgia. He’s batting .488 with 41 hits and a dozen walks (a .551 on-base percentage). Virgin is hitting .367 and Brown is batting .348 with a team-leading 35 RBI. Burke is batting .333, and Jakari Martin is hitting .348.
Still, Schley County (17-10) may have an advantage.
“They’ve got good pitching, and they have been in the playoffs a lot,’’ Johnson said. “They’re in there every year. It’s nothing new for Schley County to be in the second round.’’
It’s a different year at Seminole for a lot of reasons, and today’s doubleheader may say it all about this group of kids.
“This is the first time we’ve been at home in the second round in the last 10 years,’’ Johnson said. “After losing in the first round last year the seniors were really hungry. They really wanted to win this year.’’
The football team made history by going to the third round of the playoffs for the first time in the school’s history. The baseball team would like to follow that lead.
“I’ve been here 12 years,’’ Johnson began, “and we’ve never been to the third round since I’ve been here. Seminole won a state title in 1970. I wasn’t born yet.’’
MILLER TRAVELS TO SAVANNAH: Miller County has had a dream season with new coach Chris Buckhalter, who has his Pirates in the second round of the Class A playoffs.
“It’s been since 1986 since Miller got past the first round of the playoffs,’’ Buckhalter said. “They’re excited. They will be ready to play.’’
Miller (17-9) has stormed into the playoffs and has won nine of its last 11, including taking two-of-three against Lanier County in the opening round of the playoffs. But the Pirates caught a tough break in the bracket and are playing in Savannah today against Calvary Day, a traditional powerhouse that went to the Final Four last year.
Calvary Day (19-8) is loaded again and will throw two top-flight pitchers at the Pirates today in a doubleheader that begins at 2 p.m.
Right-hander Hunter Newman has already signed to play at LSU, and lefty Ryan Lawlor has signed with Valdosta State.
“They’ve got real good pitching. They both throw in the upper 80s’,’’ said Buckhalter, who quickly added that this will be the toughest pitching his kids have seen all year. “Yes sir, it is. But we’re going to see it and hit it. Our kids won’t be intimidated.
“We usually hit a fastball pretty good.’’
Miller County has been led by third baseman T.T. Barber (.375) and catcher Ty Sheffield, who is hitting .408 with 40 RBI. He drove in five runs last week against Lanier. Michael Cowart, a sophomore is the ace — and a workhorse. He threw 114 pitches in a 10-inning win against Lanier, allowing just three runs in the game. Cole Vann, a freshman, won Game 3 in the Lanier series, going the distance and allowing just one run while striking out eight.
“We’re just really young,’’ Buckhalter said. “We’ve got three seniors, a junior, three freshmen and two sophomores. This is really big for us to be in the Sweet 16. We have a new look, a new coach and new kids. I know it would be a big upset for us to beat them, but our kids have no quit in them.’’
CORDELE --- Crisp County coach Bill Pate didn’t have to think long on the question about long it has been since the Cougars reached the third round of the playoffs.
“I have no clue,’’ he said. “I’ve been here eight years.’’
They’re not worried about ancient history at Crisp as much as they are concerned with making history. This year’s Cougars have already made a national name for themselves and enter today’s Class AAA doubleheader against Allatoona with a 27-0 record and as ESPN’s No. 10-ranked team in the nation.
The doubleheader starts at 5 p.m., and both games could go by quickly because both teams are loaded with pitching. Pate knows what he has in his double aces, Robert Tyler (7-0, 0.73 ERA and 10.9 strikeouts per game) and Davis Adkins (9-0, 0.34 ERA and 9.9 Ks per game), but he also knows what his kids will be facing today.
“They are pitching-rich,’’ Pate said. “They’ve got three really good pitchers and an All-American Clate Schmidt, who is going to Clemson.”
Schimdt, who throws in the 90s, has struck out 85 batters in just 45 innings and has a 1.53 ERA, and Michael Royal, who is going to Kennesaw State, has fanned 68 in 40 innings and enters today’s game with a 2.15 ERA. Then there’s Lucas Brown, who is going to Northwest Florida Junior College. He has struck out 70 in 42 innings and has the lowest ERA on the team — 1.15.
“The first guy, Schimdt, is supposed to be lights out. He pitched in the AFLAC All-American Game, and throws in the mid-90s with a real good slider,’’ Pate said. “It’s probably going to come down to who makes the fewest mistakes.’’
Crisp County has been that kind of team all year — a team full of leather and clutch hits. Pate said there has been a different guy come through almost every game, and that’s the strength and the heart of Crisp’s magical season.
The Cougars have plenty of bats up and down their lineup, including Drake Dozier, who leads the team with a .392 batting average and Taylor Walls, who is hitting .387. Tyler is batting .377.
The Cougars lost to West Laurens last year in the second round, and left the field in tears. Pate said his team has been hungry all year but that loss last year hasn’t been a factor this week.
“We really haven’t talked about it,’’ he said. “They’ve just been focused on taking care of business.’’