Westwood baseball coach Al Timmerman's team had been on a 15-game winning streak before losing its final two games of the regular season. Now, after a week off thanks to a first-round bye, the Wildcats will try to rebound today at home against Nathanael Greene in the Elite 8 round of the GISA Class A state playoffs.
Defending state champ Crisp Academy wary of Westminster
CORDELE — Once a perennial baseball power before recently falling on lean times, Westminster Christian is determined to return to prominence in the sport.
To do that, the school hired a young and enthusiastic head coach, Caleb Abney, who’ll lead the program into battle this weekend when the Lions visit Cordele for a best-of-three GISA Class A series against defending state champion Crisp Academy.
Game 1 is set to begin today at 3 p.m. Game 2 is on tap for 10 a.m. Saturday, followed by Game 3, if necessary. The winner will face the Bethlehem Christian and Randolph Southern winner next week.
“Up until the last couple of years, baseball had always been a success here,” Abney said. “But when the school dropped football, a good bit of enrollment — probably 50 percent of it — was lost as a lot of kids transferred elsewhere. Since that happened, I understand we’ve gone from winning region just about every year in baseball to struggling to break .500.”
That’s definitely been the case for the last two seasons as Westminster lost to Crisp at this same level in 2011 after it finished with a 5-9 record under then-coach Mark Childs. Currently, the Lions are 7-13, but Crisp — the No. 2 seed out of Region 3-A — is not taking them lightly.
“You can’t overlook anyone this time of year. I just hope we can go out and do what we do,” said Crisp assistant coach Don Odom, who remained on the team this season despite the departure of head coach Brett Freeman. Freeman left the program after a dispute with the school over when it could start practice, thus walking away from a chance to repeat.
Odom said it’s been “strange” going through the season without Freeman, but he and the Crisp players have confidence in first-year coach John Penny, who led the Wildcats to a 13-6 record and Region 3-A runner-up finish behind Westwood.
“It has been strange, but the thing we have going for us is this group knows how to win,” Odom said.
Westminster put what little depth it had to good use in winning its opening round of postseason play, where — as a No. 4 seed from Region 1-A — it defeated Region 4-A champion Oak Mountain in a clean sweep.
Asked his thoughts about Crisp, which blanked Westminster, 10-0, and 15-0 in state play last year, Abney said he doesn’t know much.
“I am aware they’re the defending state champs, that they’re well-respected about the prospects for another high finish this season and that they always seem to find a way to put a lot of good players on the field,” he said. “We realize facing them will be a challenge, but at the same time we’re excited about playing them. For us to have a chance of beating them, we’ve got to limit their scoring opportunities.”
And the Wildcats can score with the best of them, thanks to leading hitter Jordan Howard (.470 batting average, five HRs, 40 RBI) and Robbie Wright (.450, HR, 20 RBI). Toss ace James Bodrey — who is unbeaten in his last five starts and will take the hill in Game 1 today — into the mix, and this series could be over quickly. After all, it was Bodrey who closed out Crisp’s state title win a season ago.
“If he gets going, I like our chances,” Odom said.
Cordele Dispatch sports editor Harvey Simpson and Herald sports editor Danny Aller contributed to this report
CAMILLA — Don’t get Westwood baseball coach Al Timmerman wrong: He’s definitely worried about the Wildcats’ second-round opponent, Nathanael Greene.
He’s just more worried about his team.
After winning 15 games in a row during the regular season, Westwood (15-3) ended on a two-game losing streak. Couple that with nearly two weeks off since the Wildcats’ last game — thanks to a first-round bye last week — and Timmerman hopes his guys can come out with as much fire as they had when they were the hottest Class A team in the state at one point.
“It’s hard to simulate what we’re going to be facing (today) in practice this last week or so, but we’ve had some good, hard practices, so I think we’re ready,” Timmerman said, before adding with a laugh: “I hope we’re ready anyways.”
The good news for Westwood, however, is that Region 1-A, No. 3 seed Nathanael Greene enters the best-of-three series — Game 1 of which will be played today at 2 p.m., followed by Game 2 — in the same boat. The Patriots (8-8) also got a first-round bye — but it wasn’t by design. That’s because their first-round opponent, Solid Rock Christian, was hit by injuries late in the year and didn’t have enough players to even field a state playoff team, thus Solid Rock was forced to forfeit.
Needless to say, both teams should be well-rested when the series kicks off today in Camilla.
“I don’t think either of us have an advantage, and neither of us are at a disadvantage,” Timmerman said. “It’s hard to tell what will happen.”
The Wildcats, Region 3-A’s champ, have one thing going for them: They’ve been here before. Westwood is battle-tested, having reached the state title series a year ago, only to fall short against Crisp Academy.
The Wildcats also have another ace up their sleeve: Georgia Southern signee Douglas Nobles, the team’s ace who is unbeaten this season. Nobles, who also shares the title of leading hitter with Caleb Morrell, will get the start in Game 2, while Morrell — who has just one loss this season — will start Game 1.
“The kids are sick of practicing — they’re ready to play,” Timmerman said. “We’ve picked up the tempo this week in practice, and we’re ready to go.”
As for those two losses to end the regular season, Timmerman said the one good thing about the long layoff is that the Wildcats have had plenty of time to put those in the past.
“We were just flat when we lost those games (to Crisp and Sherwood),” he said. “But luckily we picked then to be flat and not now. After seeing how they practiced this week, I don’t think they’ll come out flat (today).”
RANDOLPH SOUTHERN HITS ROAD FOR GISA CLASS A ELITE 8 SERIES VS. BETHLEHEM CHRISTIAN: Other than two wins and a berth on the GISA Class A Final Four next week, Randolph Southern head coach Tommy Owen has one goal heading into today’s Elite 8 matchup with state playoff newcomer Bethlehem Christian.
“I’d like to stick around this time,” Owen joked.
The second-year Patriots’ coach can laugh now about the scene last week when he was thrown out of Game 2 of their best-of-three series with Memorial Day, then was forced to leave the premises for all of Game 3. No worries, however — Randolph went down, 1-0, then stormed back to sweep the next two games and advance to today’s showdown with Bethlehem.
“It was just a horrendous call, then there was another one later. And we were up by 10 runs in that game, so I wanted to make my point with the ump,” Owens said. “Granted, looking back, it probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but I think it got my kids fired up and we came back and won Game 3. They were laughing at some of the stuff I was saying when I got tossed, but at the same time, I think they liked the idea of someone standing up for them.”
Owen had to watch Game 3 from the bus, and he was getting updates via text message. And while he would’ve liked to have been there calling the shots, the Patriots did just fine without him, winning the do-or-die contest, 11-4.
With that debacle now in his rearview, the Region 3-A, No. 3-seeded Patriots turned their attention to Region 1, No. 1 Bethlehem Christian this week. Although, Owen said it was tough to prepare considering not many in the state know much about the 1-A champs who have played second fiddle to Thomas Jefferson for years.
“I’d never even heard of them before this year. We saw them at a tournament at the beginning of the year at St. Simons Island play Crisp, and I didn’t even know they were a Class A team,” Owen said of the Knights, who finished the season 17-2. “But from what I’ve heard, they’ve got good pitching, play good defense and we should have our work cut out for us.”
The same was true last week against a stout Memorial team, but Randolph handled that matchup just fine, despite entering it with just six wins all year. The Patriots are now 8-13 overall coming into today’s Game 1, which will be played almost as far away as last week’s series was in Augusta.
“It’s about 4 1/2 hours away,” Owen said. “Last week was four hours away, so we’re getting used to it.”
Call the Patriots the Road Warriors, especially Blake Lamb and Grant Kimbrel, who have been the leaders thus far. Lamb’s been tearing the cover off the ball,as has Kimbrel, who also shut down Memorial on the mound in Game 3 last Saturday to help Randolph advance.
“I’m not worried about those guys in my 1-5 holes in the lineup, but we have to get production out of our 6-9 hitters,” Owen said. “That will be the difference in whether we win or lose this series.”
GISA Class AA Elite 8
DAWSON — Ashley Walker doesn’t care that senior star Kyle Stratton struggled during last week’s opening-round GISA Class AA playoff series.
“He’s been my guy all year, and he’ll continue to be my guy until we’re done playing,” the Terrell Academy head coach said Thursday. “He’s done a great job for me this year, and I have a lot of confidence in him.”
Stratton will get the ball in Game 1 today and start on the mound for the Region 3, No. 2-seeded Eagles, who come into the Elite 8 matchup against Region 1, No. 1 Brentwood School as the underdog.
Sure, Terrell pulled off the upset last week when it rallied from a 1-0 hole against Region 2, No. 2 Frederica to win Games 2 and 3 and advance, but momentum doesn’t mean a whole lot when facing the best Class AA team in the state all year in Brentwood (25-1) — and doing so 3 1/2 hours away on the road.
“They’re darn good,” Walker said of Brentwood. “Well-coached, good pitching, good fundamentals. I feel like we have momentum, however. Last week was a big-time gut check for us after falling behind. But we rose to the occasion.”
And now the Eagles (15-9) will have to do it again.
Walker will have to get the same type of production today that he’s gotten all year out of leading hitter Stratton (.489, HR, 25 RBI), and fellow stars Josh Wardrip (.393, 19 runs scored) and Clint Smith (.393, HR, 27 RBI).
But Walker is mostly focused on Stratton being able to turn his game around after he was the Game 1 losing pitcher a week ago, then nearly blew the save in Game 3 when he gave up a grand slam.
“He’s looked fine in practice all week. I think he’s shaken it off,” he said. “As long as he bounces back like I know he can, we’ll be OK.”