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GISA CLASS A STATE TITLE PREVIEW: Crisp Academy turns around potential 'disaster' season into rematch with Westwood for Class A crown

Crisp Academy first-year head coach John Penney, center, was an assistant on last year’s GISA Class A State Championship team that swept Westwood, but when then-head coach Brett Freeman abruptly left the team before the start of the 2012 season, the Crisp players got together and asked Penney to step in. He did, and now one year later, Penney has Crisp right back where it wanted to be: defending its state crown. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Crisp Academy first-year head coach John Penney, center, was an assistant on last year’s GISA Class A State Championship team that swept Westwood, but when then-head coach Brett Freeman abruptly left the team before the start of the 2012 season, the Crisp players got together and asked Penney to step in. He did, and now one year later, Penney has Crisp right back where it wanted to be: defending its state crown. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Battle of the ’Cats — Take 2:

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WHO: Crisp Academy (17-6) at Westwood (19-3).

WHAT: GISA Class A State Championship, best-of-three series; rematch of last year’s state title game.

WHEN: Today — Game 1, 1 p.m.; Saturday — Game 2, 1 p.m., immediately followed by Game 3, if necessary.

WHERE: Camilla.

FOLLOW ONLINE: For live updates, log onto: twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports.

CORDELE — They’re here, right back in the state title game.

That’s nothing new for Crisp Academy’s baseball team, but the way these kids got here is a story in itself, a crooked journey that started in doubt, without a coach, and has ended in Camilla, where Crisp meets Westwood for the second straight year for the GISA Class A State Championship in a best-of-three series that begins at 1 p.m. today and will end some time Saturday.

It’s Crisp’s third straight trip to the final.

“We know what it’s like to win it and we know what it’s like to lose it,’’ said shortstop Robby Wright, a senior who is hitting .460.

Crisp lost to Citizen’s Christian two years ago in three games, and then swept Westwood last year, which had everyone in Cordele and Camilla talking about a rematch that has come to fruition.

“We got tired of hearing it. People started talking about a rematch when the game was over last year, and we’ve been hearing it since,’’ said Crisp assistant coach Dave Odom, who has been with the team for three years.

Both programs brought back players, but Crisp lost a lot more than Westwood. Not only did the team’s ace, Patrick Fay, and the team’s big bopper, third baseman J.T. Carter, who hit 13 homers last year, graduate, but a total of six seniors, including five starters, left the program.

That was the easy part of the saga. Crisp also started the season without a coach — and with a blueprint for failure.

“The season could have been a disaster,’’ said James Brodrey, a left-handed senior who is this year’s ace.

There was so much confusion and chaos Crisp’s entire team could have fallen off a cliff. Instead, a new coach and a bunch of kids who found a way to turn everything around have marched back to the state title series.

It’s still hard to imagine what happened. Last year’s coach Brett Freeman went to war with the school when he was told his kids couldn’t practice until the basketball season ended. He drew a line in the sand, and when he was told his team couldn’t practice, Freeman quit a couple of weeks before baseball practice began.

“The school board told him he couldn’t practice until the end of basketball, and he didn’t agree with it. He took a stand, and he felt like he should stand by it,’’ said John Penney, who took over the team. “I applaud him for it, (but) I wish he would have stayed.’’

Freeman’s abrupt departure left everyone wondering what would happen with the team.

The kids were so upset and concerned that they held a players-only meeting at first baseman Jordan Howard’s house.

“We had everyone come over, and we talked it out,’’ Howard said. “We talked all night about it. It was a pretty tough situation (losing our coach). Something like that happens and you never know how the season was going to go.’’

The kids talked and talked, and the teammates who weren’t there called in and voiced their opinions on the phone. The kids who were there were up so late, they spent the night at Howard’s, but not until they came to a decision.

“That meeting was intense,’’ Bodrey said.

Then came a phone call from nowhere.

“I was at home, and the kids called me,’’ Penney, who was Freeman’s assistant last year, said. “The kids got together and called me (from Howard’s house). I didn’t even know Brett had quit. They asked me to be their coach. To tell you the truth, I was honored they asked me, but when I hung up the phone, I told my wife it would never happen.’’

But Penney knew the kids. He has coached an elite travel team for years and most of the Crisp kids played for him, so they knew him well when he came over to Crisp from Fullington as an assistant last year.

“We wanted the decision to come from us and be from everyone,’’ Howard said. “We didn’t want the coach to come from an outside factor. We wanted it to be somebody who knew us.’’

Everyone on the team not only knew Penney, but they respected him.

“We played for coach John,’’ Wright said. “He knew us and we knew him. I want to thank coach John for coming in that late. He had a lot of pressure on him.’’

It all worked out, but it was a rough beginning. Crisp lost its first two games and committed 11 errors. By the time the Region 3-A race started, Crisp was no better than a .500 team (4-4).

“It was a shaky start,’’ said Bodrey, who took the loss in the opener — but hasn’t lost since. He’s 8-1 with a 1.80 ERA, and he’s hitting .420 with 35 RBI. But after the rough beginning, Crisp, which enters today’s game with a 17-6 record. It was a total turnaround.

“We just started playing baseball,’’ Bodrey said. “At the beginning everyone was upset because we were losing, and when we started region play we started playing baseball. We lost six seniors and good, quality starters from last year’s team. But (after the slow start), we did what we had to do with the team we had.’’

There have been some benchmark wins along the way. Penney said he thought last week’s Final Four sweep (6-1 and 9-7) against Bethlehem, which was the No. 1-ranked team in Class A and had beaten Crisp early in the season, was a high point of his team coming together.

He knows how far his kids have come.

“It was a rebuilding process,’’ Penney said. “We knew we were going to have some pitching, but the rest was uncertain. We lost the first game and then when we lost to Bethlehem in the second game, we had a talk. Then we beat Robert Toombs, 16-0, and Frederica, 10-0. We cranked it up.’’

Bodrey, however, said he felt the real turning point came in the first week in April.

“Beating Westfield was definitely the turning point of the season,’’ Brodrey said of the 3-2 win on the road in Perry. It was Crisp’s most high-profile win of the year because Westfield is playing for the GISA Class AAA title this weekend.

Crisp has stormed into the state title game with a nine-game winning streak, including a 6-1 win against Westwood on the final week of the regular season. Brodrey didn’t even pitch that day. Rush Brown (8-1 with a 2.40 ERA) gave up one run — a homer to Westwood’s Mason Worsham. Brown is scheduled to pitch Game 2 on Saturday. If there is a game 3, Penney has plenty of pitching, starting with Howard, who has been the team’s closer all year. Howard can throw in the 90s.

He’s even better at the plate, where he’s hitting just above .500 and has belted seven home runs. He’s only a junior, but he is a force to be reckoned with on a team on a mission.

Crisp has filled the gaps nicely with sophomore Jake Smith at second base and Blaine Phillips, who moved from second to third this season. Penney also moved Wright from the outfield to shortstop, and has three new outfielders in Hunter Chambers, a sophomore, and the McKinney brothers — Jeff, a sophomore, and Justin, a junior. They can all fly, and Penny loves to run.

It’s a different team with a different look, and that’s why Penney said: “This is not a rematch. I’m tired of hearing that. It’s not the same two teams. We lost six seniors and they lost three players. It’s the same schools but not the same teams. It’s a totally different ball game.’’

At Westwood, it’s about vindication and redemption and coming back from last year’s bitter loss in the finals.

Crisp knows the feeling.

“I understand how they feel. We were kind of like that last year after losing two years ago,’’ Odom said. “Our kids knew how it felt, and they didn’t want to feel that way again. They didn’t want to see that again, and they don’t want to see it now.’’

Bodrey also said he knows just how Westwood feels.

“I’d be pretty upset if we lost to them last year,’’ he said. “I understand it. But we’re motivated. We were going to play whoever we were going to play for the state title. It has been (a unique season). It could have been a disaster but we (turned it around). And we’re not done yet.’’

It was a long and winding road to get here, but Penney said he appreciates what his kids accomplished even more because of the bumpy beginning.

“Yes, I do appreciate it,’’ he said Thursday after practice. “This team came together. I don’t think there’s a guy out there who wouldn’t sit down and let another guy play. He might not like it, because they all want to play, but he would do it for the team — and give you 200 percent.

“This season has meant a lot. I certainly wouldn’t have taken the job if I hadn’t had the relationship I have with these guys. It’s been great. Now we just need to take it to the house. We’re ready. We’re ready to play right now.’’