Led by head coach Bubber Birdsong, back row, second from left, the Blazers have posted their best record this season in the program’s nine-year history. Baconton (22-4) opens the state playoffs today. (Larry G. Williams/Special to The Herald)
Want To Go?
WHO: Turner County (13-9) at Baconton Charter (22-4).
WHAT: First round of GHSA Class A state playoffs.
WHEN: 1 p.m. today, followed by Game 2.
BACONTON — It doesn’t do any good to ask Baconton Charter baseball coach Bubber Birdsong to describe his team’s season.
“I don’t know,’’ he said. “It’s not over yet.’’
It has been indescribable.
And that word may not even fit this magical ride the kids from Baconton have been on — a ride that not only produced the first region title in the school’s history but the best record (22-4) any Blazers team has ever had.
These Blazers are also ranked No. 4 in the state.
But the best part?
Like Birdsong said, “It isn’t over yet.”
Baconton enters the Class A state playoffs today at home in a doubleheader against Turner County, which reached the playoffs as the No. 13 team in the state. The first pitch is scheduled for 1 p.m. If a third game is needed to decide the best-of-three series, it will be played at 11 a.m. on Saturday.
“It’s been crazy. It’s been a lot of fun,’’ Birdsong, said of this unforgettable season.
The program is nine years old, and this is Birdsong’s eighth year as the coach. He doesn’t hesitate to tell you how special this team has been.
“They have really worked hard to have this kind of season,’’ he said.
And yet, no one expected this — not the best season in history.
“It was kind of a surprise,’’ Birdsong said. “We thought we would be pretty good. We had our ace pitcher coming back and had a real good freshman class coming in. But I don’t think anyone expected this.’’
This is the biggest Baconton team (24 players) and the best. For the first time the Blazers put a JV team on the field, and Birdsong and his coaches have found a way to mix experience with a ton of youth — a lethal blend that saw the Blazers blaze their way through the Region 1-A race with an unbeaten record.
Four freshmen start, and each has had a huge impact on a team that is led by three-year ace Brock Pinson and Tony Holland, a four-year starter in center field. There’s only one other senior in the starting lineup and that’s second baseman Stephen Bullard, who transferred from Colquitt County. Senior Jackson Bankston, who knows how to handle the bat and plays first, second and third, has been out with an ankle injury.
“We’ve got seniors and freshmen and not a whole lot in between,’’ Birdsong said.
But the freshmen don’t play like freshmen. Just look at Taber Raley, who plays shortstop and pitches. He is batting .320 and is 8-0 as a starter with a 1.24 ERA. He has three pitches and all of them can fool you. He has struck out 77 batters in just 45 innings. That sound you hear from Baconton is the familiar sound of whiff.’
Brantley Morgan is the No. 3 pitcher and also plays first base. He doesn’t look like a freshman on the mound, where he has a 2.04 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 24 innings, and he sure doesn’t look like one at the plate, where he is hitting .347 with 16 RBI.
Hunter Cain, a left fielder who also is used as a DH, broke into the starting lineup as a freshman around midseason and is batting .400, and freshmen Turner Shiver has found a place in right field. Of Baconton’s 24-man roster, 11 are freshmen.
“This team is the biggest ever,’’ Birdsong said. “The freshmen class is as big as any team we’ve had.’’
Birdsong — and everyone in the baseball program — knew this group was going to help in some way last year when the kids were in the eighth grade.
“We knew this class of freshmen was going to have some athleticism,’’ said Holland, who started four years ago as a freshman. “But it showed up a lot stronger than anybody thought.’’
Pinson said he knew they were on their way, but even he was surprised by the impact the young kids have had.
“We knew it was coming,’’ Pinson said. “We knew the freshman class was going to be strong, but we didn’t know it was going to be like this.’’
Pinson is the heart of the team. He’s been waiting for a chance to make a run in the playoffs since he was a freshman and has relished every minute of this season. It’s been especially rewarding for Pinson and Holland — the team’s two leaders.
“It’s been the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball,’’ Holland said.
“By far,’’ added Pinson.
Pinson is 6-1 with a 3.27 ERA and has 59 strikeouts in just 40 innings. He is leading the team at the plate, where he’s hitting .561 with a homer and 34 RBI.
Catcher Zack Jones, the only junior who starts, brings the long ball. Jones is batting .507 with three homers and 40 RBI. The other starter is sophomore B.J. Classon, who plays third base.
It’s a talented group that has come together for one magical ride.
“It’s been a steady progression,’’ Birdsong said. “And the more we played, the more confident they became. We played in some one-run games in the first half of the season and winning those helped our confidence.’’
Nothing helped as much as beating three-time region champ Seminole County and powerhouse Miller County, which is ranked No. 10 in the state. The Blazers went 4-0 against their biggest threats in the region and started to believe this season could be memorable.
“We beat Miller, 1-0, in a real good game that helped our confidence,’’ Birdsong said. “And we were down by five runs going into the sixth inning at Seminole and came back to win the game. It really helped us winning a game like that.’’
Pinson said there was no doubt in his mind about what that game meant.
“That was the turning point of the season,’’ he said. “We came back and won that game, and we knew we could do it if we got down like that again. That ride home from Seminole was the best. It’s the best ride I’ve ever had.’’
The entire season has been a joyride.
Unlike the other classes in the GHSA, Class A teams are split into private-school and public-school postseason tournaments. All the teams are ranked with a state power ranking and only Top 16 teams qualify for the postseason. Baconton earned the No. 4 ranking in the state and the home field advantage today.
Still, no one talks much about being No. 4 in the state.
“We kind of keep that on the down-low,’’ Pinson said. “There have been good teams that didn’t even make the playoffs.’’
Holland then added: “We don’t want that (ranking) go to our heads. We feel like we have a shot to go further than ever before, but we can’t think about that. We’ve got to play well.’’
Baconton beat Turner, 8-0, in the second game of the season, but Birdsong said at practice Thursday that the early game didn’t mean anything. He expects a dogfight in this series and knows his kids will have to play well to advance to the Elite 8 next week.
“It’s going to be a good series,’’ Birdsong said. “We know they have a real good team at Turner.’’
Still, the feeling is this season could be even more memorable. The Baconton kids didn’t go crazy when the Blazers won their first region title.
“When we won the region title, we just walked off the field like we have business to do,’’ Birdsong said. “We know Turner is a real good team and we’re excited to be in the playoffs. Up to this point the season has been everything we have hoped for.’’