Deerfield’s Kh’Ron McClain and the Knights enter today’s GISA Class AAA Final Four showdown with Tattnall as arguably the hottest private school team in the state, having won 14 games in a row as they seek their first state title since 2003. (Larry G. Williams/Special to The Herald)
WHO: Deerfield baseball team (23-3) at Tattnall Square (25-3).
WHAT: GISA Class AAA Final Four.
WHEN: 5 p.m. today — Game 1; Game 2 will be Saturday at 2 p.m., followed immediately by Game 3, if necessary.
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ALBANY — They were literally and figuratively up against the wall.
That’s where Deerfield-Windsor’s baseball season turned around, right there in front of the center field wall at Westfield, where the Knights had just lost, 3-1.
The kids walked out there after the game and had an impromptu players-only meeting in front of the wall. That’s where senior Lindsey Short made the announcement.
“We’re not going to lose any more,’’ he said with some bite in his voice.
The Knights haven’t.
They take a 14-game winning streak into tonight’s Final Four series against their old nemesis Tattnall Square (25-3) in Macon, where the two rivals will meet at 5 p.m. today and then play again at 2 p.m. on Saturday. If a third game is needed, it will be played 45 minutes after Game 2.
Short looks like a prophet, but he just smiled this week, remembering the turn-around moment.
“I was frustrated to say the least,’’ Short said after practice Thursday. “I said, ‘We’re not losing any more,’ and it carried out pretty well. Little did we know we would win 14 in a row.’’
There was more to the streak than Short’s inspiration.
In fact, DWS coach Rod Murray believes it was more perspiration than inspiration.
“This is a very, very hard-working team,’’ Murray said. “And this team works hard when no one is watching them.’’
That’s the secret at DWS, where Murray and his kids made a commitment to improve by literally changing the way they played the game.
“We worked extremely hard on our two-strike approach,’’ Murray said. “We worked on being better with two strikes and making shorter swings and cutting down on our strikeouts and putting the ball in play. And our pitchers worked on throwing strikes and not giving up walks and making teams hit the ball and letting our defense make the plays.’’
DWS was averaging about six strikeouts a game before the streak, but now it’s averaging about two per game. The top two starting pitchers, juniors Austin Murphy (8-0 with a 1.08 ERA) and Weston King (8-1 with a 1.55 ERA), made up their minds to pitch to contact.
“It was a combination of us getting our feet wet,’’ King said. “We’re juniors coming in and starting, and it was nerve-wracking at first. But once we settled in and realized how good our defense is, we weren’t afraid to let them hit it.
“You’re not worried about throwing a curveball on a 3-2 pitch that might miss and walk a guy. You just throw the fastball and let them hit it. Our defense is that good.’’
And neither Murphy nor King cares about strikeouts.
“We’re not going to overpower anyone,’’ King said. “Luckily, we have a defense that can get us out of a jam. They’ve proven themselves game after game, getting us out of innings that we should probably still be in.’’
Cutting down on strikeouts at the plate and not worrying about them on the mound is just part of the story.
“Those two things really helped us,’’ Murray said. “But the team’s attitude has been the same all year. It’s been great. We weren’t playing bad. We were playing pretty good baseball. I hate to even call it a turnaround, but we have won 14 in a row. It’s been a fun ride.’’
Murray said the fun comes from the kids, who have bonded in a way he couldn’t have imagined.
“They’re fun to be around,’’ he said. “The team atmosphere has been great. They really know how to get along, and they hold each other accountable with a team attitude.
“They have become close, and that bond they have in the dugout has certainly carried over to the field and has helped them lean on each other when they’re playing their positions, because when you learn to trust your teammates, you have confidence. You know they will be behind you.’’
DWS got off to a slow start, losing to today’s foe Tattnall Square, 7-1, in the opener, then losing later to Region 3-AAA rival Southland, 5-4, before falling to Westfield, the defending state champ, 3-1.
The Knights were 9-3 the day they lost to Westfield in late March, but they are now 23-3 and have beaten Westfield during the streak in a playoff game to win the Region 3-AAA title.
They could meet Westfield for the state championship next week. Westfield is on the other side of the Final Four bracket, playing Bulloch this weekend.
The Knights have been led at the plate by Johnny Croley (.417) who also pitches, and Webb Harris (.406). Murray gives a lot of credit to his four seniors — Hunter Bretel, Gil Gillespie, Tyler Cook and Short — for their leadership.
They need four more wins to capture their first state title since 2003, and everyone at DWS knows there would be some more state titles in the trophy case if not for Tattnall.
Tattnall beat DWS for the state title in 2006, then again in 2009 and knocked Deerfield out in the Final Four in 2010. Last year, DWS knocked Tattnall out in the Final Four and then lost to Westfield in the state finals.
The two teams split this year. DWS lost on the road to open the season, but then beat Tattnall, 5-4, at Darton during the streak.
“Tattnall has a real good team,’’ Murray said, pointing to Tattnall’s top two pitchers, Connor Alford and Tyler Thompson, as keys for the Trojans.
Added Short: “I think it’s ironic that it’s always Deerfield and Tattnall. We’ve split this year, so no one knows what’s going to happen.’’