Rob Williams enters the state playoffs as a No. 4 seed for the first time in Williams' 25 years as head coach and with a dismal 10-16 record after some hard-luck losses during the regular season.
LEESBURG — No one knows this feeling at Lee County, this feeling of being on the outside looking in.
That’s the way Lee County begins the Class AAAAA state playoffs today at Starr’s Mill. To put it bluntly, the Trojans are now the other guys.
“We haven’t been in this position before,’’ said legendary Lee County coach Rob Williams, who — for the first time in his 25 years at Lee — has a team with a losing record.
It has been a tough, brutal and frustrating season for the Trojans, who are 10-16 and the No. 4 seed today against Starr’s Mill, the top-seeded team from Region 4-AAAAA. The Panthers are 22-4 and a big favorite.
But Williams knows better.
“You see it happen every year in the playoffs — a No. 4 beats a No. 1,’’ Williams said. “So, why not us?’’
Lee’s record may be the most deceiving thing about this team, which could have easily had a winning record.
“We lost five games by one run, and we lost four games when we had a two-run lead or more going into the sixth inning,’’ Williams said. “And we played in five extra-inning games. There have been only two games we have been out of all year.’’
Williams thought this team would have a much better record.
“At the beginning of the year, I would have thought our record would have been flipped or better, something like 18-8 or something like that,’’ Williams said. “It just seems like we would commit a crucial error or couldn’t get a big hit. It has been frustrating. It seemed like when we got good pitching, we didn’t swing the bats, and when we swung the bats, we didn’t pitch well or play good defense.’’
Lee started the season with its best hitter, Andrew Stroud, coming back from knee surgery and opened up against tough competition. The Trojans were 0-5 before they knew it.
“Andrew couldn’t run the bases the first 11 games of the year,’’ Williams said. “We couldn’t use him in center field and had to DH him, and every time he got on we had to use a pinch-runner. If he hit a gapper he couldn’t go to second unless he was sure he could get there.’’
The slow start and six losses to Class AAAAAA teams hurt Lee’s chances of gaining any momentum, but the Trojans rallied down the stretch.
“The only three-game winning streak we had all year was when we won our last three region games,’’ Williams said. “And we had to win all three just to get into the playoffs. We’re playing better right now.
“We’ve never gone in as a No. 4 but our mindset is every year a 4 beats a 1, so why not us? We might be the ugliest duckling here, but we did get an invitation.’’
Williams and his kids believe they can turn the season around.
“I’ve told the kids, ‘It’s a new season,’ ” Williams said. “The records don’t mean anything right now. They’re confident. They feel like every game we have played this year that we had a chance to win it. We’ve been on the other side of this and you can win 20 games, but it doesn’t mean a thing once the playoffs begin.’’
Stroud leads the Trojans at the plate, batting .407 for the season with seven home runs and 22 RBI. Catcher Jack Bell hit .358 with a homer and 14 RBI, and Dalton Daniel played shortstop and hit .286 while striking out only five times. He had a .369 OBP.
The Trojans didn’t hit well as a team. They hit only .238, which Williams said was “about 100 points lower than what we usually hit.’’ And there were too many times this season when a key hit would have flipped the outcome of a game.
Williams hopes the key hits come in this series, which begins with a doubleheader at 4 p.m. today with the third game is scheduled for noon on Saturday.
Chris Mosley has been the ace of the staff, but he has a tough-luck 2-3 record. He left three games with the lead that he should have won. Mosley has a 2.52 ERA and can compete with anyone. Chad Moore is 2-1 with a save and 3.04 ERA, and Matt Mears is 2-2 with two saves and a 0.40 ERA. All three throw strikes. Mosley has 60 strikeouts in 50 innings and has allowed only 17 walks. Moore has allowed only four walks in 23 innings and Mears has allowed four walks in 17 2/3 innings.
“We’ve given up 145 runs this year, but only 85 have been earned — 45 percent of our runs have been unearned,’’ Williams said.
That’s why Williams thinks his kids have the chance to pull off the upset in the series.
“If we can pitch and catch it and keep it close, we’ll figure out a way to win it,’’ he said. “Our guys have given us a good effort and feel like every time we go out there we can win.’’
Westover is used to going to the playoffs, but coach Kevin Fretwell likes this year’s team a lot.
“I feel a lot better about this team than I have in the past three years,’’ said Fretwell, whose Patriots are on the road against Region 4-AAAA No. 2 Locust Grove. Westover, the No. 3 seed from Region 1-AAAA, is 16-7 and the underdogs, but Fretwell believes if his pitchers keep it close his team can get to the next round of the playoffs.”
“If our starters can give us five or six innings and I don’t have to use my athletic guys to pitch. I think we can win. I definitely think we have a chance to win the series. It’s just everything has to work out.”
Westover has one of the best center fielders in Georgia in Josh Black, who recently signed with Georgia Southern. Black is hitting .621 with 23 stolen bases and runs down everything in the outfield. He also pitches in relief.
Westover catcher Brandon Brettell has thrown out seven runners at second or third in the past two games, and he’s hitting .500. Westover shortstop Michael Greene was arguably the best fielding shortstop in the region and he’s hitting .310.
The Patriots can have some depth on the mound, where freshman Terrance Mosley (3-0, 2.71 ERA) will start the opener today at 4 p.m. Kel Miller will start the second game, and if a third game is needed the first pitch will come at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. Luke Spaling, a junior, is 7-2 on the mound for the Patriots.
Crisp County won its third consecutive Region 1-AAAA title and will be at home today against Spalding (15-9), the No. 4 seed from Region 4-AAAA.
The Cougars (22-4) have won 38 region games in a row, and bring Robert Tyler, one of the best pitchers in the country, to the mound for the series, which begins with a doubleheader at 4 p.m. The third game is scheduled for noon on Saturday.
Crisp has a team ERA of 1.78, and the Cougar pitchers have struck out 182 batters in 149 innings. They can hit, too. Crisp’s team batting average is .319.
Tyler is 5-1 with a 1.83 ERA with 44 strikeouts in 38 innings, and his younger brother, Stewart, a sophomore, is 7-1 with a 1.84 ERA. He has 63 Ks in 45 innings. Landon Whitman is 5-0 with a 1.21 ERA and 30 Ks in 29 innings.
Kory Herrington leads Crisp at the plate, where he’s hitting .423 and has driven in 31 runs on 30 hits, including three homers.
Worth County (11-14) fielded one of the youngest teams in Southwest Georgia, but the Rams still made the playoffs. The Rams, the No. 4 seed from Region 1-AAAA, face Region 4-AAAA top-seed and state powerhouse Griffin (23-4) at 4 p.m. on the road today in the opening round of the playoffs.
“We lost nine starters from last year’s team, and we have six freshmen and a sophomore in our starting lineup. Our goal from the beginning of the year was to make the playoffs,’’ Worth coach Will Smith said. “We are facing a really good team. Their No. 1 pitcher throws 90-91 and he has already committed to Georgia Tech. We know they’re a good team, but we’ve had a good year and we’re in the playoffs, and this will give us something to build on.’’
Worth is led by pitcher Eli Reddell, the team’s only senior starter, and sophomores John Cirullo, who plays short and second base, and Denzel Gowdy, who plays third and pitches.
Miller County had a huge season and is ranked No. 10 in the state. The Pirates are 18-7 and face No. 7 Johnson County (20-3) on the road in the opening round of the Class A state playoffs at 4 p.m. today.
Miller has only one senior (center fielder Cain Givens) but the youth movement has paid off. Junior Michael Cowart (6-1 with a 1.13 ERA) has been the ace of the staff, but sophomore Cole Van (6-3) has had his moments. He struck out 17 batters against Class AAAA power Cairo. Van is hitting .515.
Tyler Clay, a junior catcher, is batting .485, and Jake Warren, a junior second baseman, is hitting .485.