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PREVIEW: Proud Randolph Southern baseball program begins final quest before school closing

Take a close look at the 2013 baseball team at Randolph Southern — because after this season ends, they’ll be the last ones to wear the RSS uniform following an announcement earlier this year the school is closing. (mike.phillips@albanyherald.com)

Take a close look at the 2013 baseball team at Randolph Southern — because after this season ends, they’ll be the last ones to wear the RSS uniform following an announcement earlier this year the school is closing. (mike.phillips@albanyherald.com)

SHELLMAN — They dot the front yards of the tree-lined homes in Shellman, popping up like little reminders, small tugs at the heart.

No one needs to say anything. Everyone knows.

Still, those red and white signs that read, “I love RSS,” that are sprinkled throughout the yards and homes in this sweet little country town are like a steady whisper.

It’s the same on the baseball diamond at Randolph Southern, where the kids know all too well what those signs mean.

Randolph Southern is closing its doors forever at the end of the school year, and a town and community has cried a river of tears since the announcement in February. RSS was always more than a school. It was a home, a place where most of the kids grew up walking the halls from kindergarten to the graduation procession, literally growing up right there, where the teachers always cared a little more and old-fashioned values were taught along with the ABC’s of chemistry and physics.

It will be gone in a matter of days — an era that will always be treasured.

It’s the reason the kids on the baseball team have such a difficult time talking about it. They know what it means to the town and the community, and they know better than anyone that they are the last team at Randolph Southern, the final chapter in the school’s rich history of sports.

They are the last team standing.

“It’s touchy. No one really wants to talk about it,’’ said senior shortstop Blake Lamb, his voice cracking a bit. “Everyone knows the school is closing. We don’t have to talk about it. It’s always there. It’s always with us. Everybody knows.’’

The kids on this team want to win more than ever — more than anyone could have imagined. But then again, no one imagined the school would ever close.

“We have so much more to play for than anyone else,’’ left fielder Rhett Ragan said. “We’re the last team that will ever wear a Randolph Southern jersey.’’

You can see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices, a dozen kids playing baseball one last time, carrying a school and community on their shoulders.

That’s what the Patriots will take with them today when they take the field against Nathaneal Greene in the opening round of the GISA Class A state baseball playoffs. They don’t just want to make a run at a state title. They want to make one for prosperity.

“If we win the state title, it will be amazing,’’ second baseman Brett Sauls said. “It would be amazing getting a ring, knowing we are the last ones at Randolph Southern to ever get a ring. That would be an awesome feeling.’’

Not just for the team but for everyone.

“It would mean so much,’’ Ragan said. “It would mean everything, not only for us but for everyone associated with the school. It would be a memory we would cherish for the rest of our lives.’’

The crowds at the games have been a little bigger his spring, and the feeling in Shellman is this is a team that can bring it all home one last time.

“We’ve always had good crowds and we travel well,’’ assistant coach Curtis Stanfield said. “But this year it’s been more. The community cares about this school and the teams, and everyone knows this one is the last one. They all care about this school.’’

Stanfield believes this team can make a magic run and win it all — and so do the kids.

“We’ve got good speed and good bats,’’ Stanfield said. “Everybody puts the bat on the ball.’’

The Patriots are hitting .365 as a team and they have been playing better down the stretch. No one has to talk about having a sense of urgency on this team — they’re living it.

“I don’t have to bring it up,’’ said first-year head coach Seth Farmer, who knows first-hand what an emotional issue the school’s closing is for his kids. “I have used it for motivation, but they all know the school is closing. They know what this means, and you can see they take a lot of pride putting on the jersey that says Randolph Southern.”

The Patriots went 6-2 in the Region 3-A race, splitting a pair of games with state power Crisp Academy, which has played in the state title series the last two years, winning it all in 2011 and finishing second to Westwood in a gutsy, memorable three-game title series last spring. The Patriots wouldn’t have to see Crisp again until the state final, and they all believe they can get there.

“I feel real good about this team,’’ Farmer said. “We don’t have one or two guys who are hitting .400 or .500 like most high school teams. We have a good group of guys who hit up and down the lineup. They can all hit.’’

Lamb and catcher Drew Weathersby lead the team in hitting. They’re both batting .385, and Lamb has three homers and has driven in 20 runs. Weathersby leads the team with 25 RBI and also has a couple of dingers this season. Sauls is hitting .350 and has driven in 16 runs. Trey Goree is the ace. He’s 5-1 with a 3.25 ERA, and he’s hitting .325. Lamb also pitches and has closed out three games this season. The other starter is Owen Deal, who is 2-0 with a 4.20 ERA.

“I feel strong about this team,’’ Stanfield said. “When these guys put their minds to it, they can beat anyone.’’

It starts today, this final run by the last team standing, a dozen kids who have had their hearts broken and have one chance to touch the very heart of Randolph Southern.

“Knowing we’re the last team,’’ Sauls said. “Knowing we have a chance to win it and be the last team to play at Randolph Southern. It’s exciting to have that chance. I can’t wait. I’m like a little kid before Christmas.’’

And this team couldn’t be much closer. It’s a group of kids right out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

“They’re really close,’’ Farmer said. “After practice every day they all get together and go to the same swimming hole.’’

The swimming hole is affectionately called “John’s Pond,’’ and it’s part of the tight bond the RSS kids have formed over the years — with each other and the school.

“We’ve all grown up together at this school,’’ said Weathersby, one of seven seniors on the 12-man roster. “And we’ve been playing baseball for a long time. When we think about the school closing, it’s emotional. We’re trying to make it and win it for the school. We want to leave our stamp on the school.’’

Everyone believes this is the best baseball team at Randolph Southern since the 2009 bunch won it all, and this is the first time the Patriots will be hosting a playoff game since ’09. A big crowd is expected for today’s doubleheader that begins at 1 p.m. If a third game is needed, the teams will meet at 11 a.m. on Saturday.

“It’s a big deal for them (to win this year for the school),’’ Stanfield said. “And everyone is excited about playing at home.’’

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