Crisp County High’s Taylor Walls (1) lines one of the two extra base hits he collected in the Cougars’ 12-5 Game 2 win over the Stephens County during Tuesday’s quarterfinal round of the GHSA Class AAAA state baseball playoffs. Walls and the Cougars swept the doubleheader to reach the Final Four for just the second time in school history. (Alicia Whitman/Cordele Dispatch)
WHO: No. 3-ranked Marist (25-7) baseball team at No. 2 Crisp County (28-4).
WHAT: GHSA Class AAAA Final 4, best-of-three series.
WHEN: 4 p.m. Monday (DH); Game 3, if necessary, Tuesday at 5:30 pm.
LIVE UPDATES: twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports.
CORDELE — Around this time last year was when Bill Pate expected to be having the conversation.
You know, the one about how his Crisp County baseball team was on the verge of the school’s second state championship — and the first in 52 years.
“It’s funny how it works out sometimes,” Pate said Wednesday, less than 24 hours removed from the Cougars’ doubleheader sweep of Stephens County (8-7 and 12-5) in the GHSA Class AAAA Elite 8 round of the state playoffs, propelling the program to just its second Final Four appearance ever. “Last year was supposed to be the team. But that always seems to happen, doesn’t it? The team that is supposed to win it all and go all the way falls short, and then the one that doesn’t have as high of expectations always seems to come back the next year and get the job done.
“Maybe this year we didn’t feel the pressure and get caught up in all the rankings and outside talk, and that’s finally allowing us to just focus (on winning baseball games).”
The 2012 Cougars found themselves in this very same scenario a season ago: favorites in the Elite 8 and expected to run the table en route to the championship. But when Crisp — which had won 27 in a row and was ranked nationally entering last year’s Elite 8 series against Allatoona — was swept at home, Pate did some reflecting during the offseason on where Crisp went wrong.
And that’s why even though the Cougars entered Tuesday’s twinbill with Stephens County on another remarkable streak — winners of 18 straight and ranked No. 2 in the coaches state poll at 26-4 — Pate was barely aware.
“I don’t even know what we’re ranked. We made a conscious effort not to talk about that kind of stuff last year because it just put too much pressure on the kids,” the sixth-year coach said. “And so far, it’s worked.”
Crisp will now play Marist, ranked No. 3 and winners of 10 straight, on Monday in Cordele in Games 1 and 2 of a best-of-three Final Four series, beginning at 4 p.m. Game 3, if necessary, will be played Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.
In the meantime, Pate is allowing himself and his kids to enjoy this one.
“The deeper you get in the playoffs, the better the teams are, and this was one of the better ones we’ve played all year,” he said Wednesday. “So to get a win — a sweep — was big for us.”
Things didn’t look good early, however, for Crisp.
Cougars ace Robert Tyler, one of the best players in Georgia regardless of classification, was roughed up for four runs in the very first inning of Game 1 by Stephens County as Crisp fell behind, 4-0, after slugger Ryan Cleveland’s 16th home run of the season.
“They scouted (Robert) well, knew he was a fastball pitcher and they jumped all over him,” Pate said. “When he came back to the dugout, we suggested he start using the fastball to get ahead and then mix in some other stuff. He settled down, and that settled us down.”
Tyler, the UGA commit who went on to pitch a complete game with eight strikeouts, held Stephens County down from there as Crisp finally came alive in the fifth, scoring three runs, then the Cougars tacked on five more in the sixth to go ahead, 8-4. Even more remarkable was the fact that all of Crisp’s damage in Game 1 was done with two outs. Crisp would stave off a late, seventh-inning comeback — Stephens scored three in the final frame and had a runner on third with two outs — to hold for the 8-7 final
Chris McGinnis, Taylor Walls, Bradley Huff, Stewart Tyler and Whitt Campbell all had two hits in the opener, while Kory Harrington and Devin Taylor added doubles.
In Game 2, it was Tyler’s younger brother, Stewart, who would take the hill, hoping for the same outcome — but a much different start than Robert.
He got one of two.
Stewart, like Robert, was rocked in the first inning, also for four runs as Crisp once again fell into a big hole early, 4-1, after scoring the opening run in the top of the first.
But also like big brother, Stewart settled down in a major way and pitched five solid innings beyond the disastrous start to allow just six hits and strike out three.
In between, the Cougars once again rallied, tying the game in the second inning at 4-4, then using a four-run third inning to pull away.
Again, all the runs came with two outs.
“We got some timely hitting, for sure,” Pate said.
It was McGinnis and Huff again in Game 2 leading the way as both collected three hits, while Robert Tyler and Harrington added two hits each and Walls blasted a doubled and a triple.
Pate, whose program set a new school record this year with 28 wins — beating the old mark of 27, which was set by last year’s team — said when the final Stephens batter was called out, everyone felt a big sigh of relief.
“The attitude all year was to forget about last year, but we couldn’t really do that until we got past where we fell short a season ago,” he said. “We set goals to accomplish, and so far we’ve accomplished most of them. But we can’t stop working until we accomplish the next one. Right now, we’re just working our way up the ladder.”