The Crisp County High School baseball team gathers for a team photo Sunday afternoon in Cordele toward the beginning of the Cougars’ final practice in preparation for today’s opening two games of their GHSA Class AAAA Final Four series against Marist — the No. 4-ranked team in the state. The Cougars, the No. 2-ranked team in Georgia, enter the contest winners of 20 straight. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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WHO: No. 4-ranked Marist baseball team (25-7) at No. 2 Crisp County (28-4).
WHAT: GHSA Class AAAA Final 4, best-of-three series.
WHEN: 4 p.m. today (DH); Game 3, if necessary, Tuesday at 5:30 pm.
LIVE UPDATES: twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports.
CORDELE — Tucked away in the corner of Crisp County’s fieldhouse is a decades-old trophy, gathering both dust and admirers.
Old and rusty, scratched and worn, the 1961 baseball state championship trophy sits on top of a cabinet, catching the glances of this year’s Cougars baseball team before each game.
Robert Tyler wants another one just like it. Well, not exactly like it.
“I hope it looks better than that one,” the Crisp County senior said with a laugh Sunday afternoon at practice. “That one’s pretty old.”
The Cougars are in the Final 4 for the first time since that iconic 1961 season — when the baseball team won the school’s only state title in any sport — and will play Marist today in a doubleheader to open the Class AAAA three-game series. Crisp (28-4) is the second-ranked team in the state, and Marist (25-7), the 2011 state champ, is ranked fourth, setting up a semifinal matchup for the ages.
Crisp County senior Kory Herrington is finding the Cougars’ remarkable ride a little overwhelming.
“You don’t know how you are supposed to feel or where you are supposed to be. We have never been here before,” Herrington said. “A few weeks from now I might be able to describe how I felt, but right now it’s like I’m in a haze or a dream.”
It’s a dream season that has been a long time coming for the Cougars, who lost in the quarterfinals the last two years, including last season when they were ranked No. 22 in the country and entered the playoffs with a 25-0 record.
This season’s ride has turned even more magical, and the entire community of Cordele is hopping on board.
“They probably like this ride about as much as we do,” Herrington said. “It’s been a long time since Crisp County has had a state championship. I think they will enjoy this as much as we do.”
Crisp has swept its way through the first three rounds of the playoffs with wins against Stephens County, Statesboro and Spalding, but the Cougars haven’t yet seen a team the caliber of Marist, which won the Region 6-AAAA title, has a storied pedigree of 12 state titles and has won 10 games in a row.
“We both won our region and have both been through pretty good playoff schedules, and we expect a great ball game,” Crisp coach Bill Pate said. “Without a doubt this will be the best team we have seen in the playoffs.”
War Eagles senior catcher Anthony Sherlag has already signed a scholarship with the University of Alabama and catches a four-headed pitching rotation that has combined for four shutouts in six postseason games.
Crisp County’s rotation rivals anybody’s in the state and is led by Tyler, who has signed with the University of Georgia and is one of the best pitchers in the state — regardless of classification. Tyler has a 1.99 ERA, an 8-1 record and has racked up 64 strikeouts. He is joined in the rotation by his brother, sophomore Stewart Tyler (9-1, 2.80 ERA, 76 Ks), and junior Landon Whitman (6-0, 1.00 ERA, 39 Ks).
The Cougars have held opposing hitters to a .187 batting average, but it’s been more than pitching that has carried them to their best postseason run in 52 years. Crisp, winners of 20 straight, is hitting .329 as a team with a .469 on-base-percentage and scoring an average of 7.2 runs per game.
Taylor Walls leads the Cougars with a .444 batting average and 44 RBI, while Herrington (.419, 37 RBI), Robert Tyler (.372, 39 RBI), Bradley Hough (.337, 30 RBI), Chris McGinnis (.321, 22 RBI) and Witt Campbell (.306, 9 RBI) are all hitting above .300.
“We have to pitch like we have been pitching, hit like we have been hitting and play defense like we have been playing,” Pate said. “If we do what we have been doing, then we feel good about our chances (today).”
Pate said the entire community is rallying behind the Cougars.
“It’s been a tremendous outpouring from the community. Even those that can’t make the games are sending messages to us,” Pate said. “The (guys) have never been fed so well in their lives. Before every game day they are fed breakfast by a business leader. We have had different groups feed us and different groups invite us to church. It’s been so many things it’s hard to remember all of it.”
Robert Tyler definitely remembers the food.
“They will invite us in and a lot of times have meals for us, like hamburgers or chicken,” Tyler said. “We really haven’t had steak or anything like that yet. Maybe we will get some of that later this week (if we make the state title series).”
If the Cougars advance to this weekend’s state championship series, they will play either Troup County or Redan, neither of which are ranked inside the Top 10 in the Class AAAA coaches’ poll.
But no one in Cordele is thinking about the weekend just yet, especially not Herrington, who has embraced the journey and is taking it one unforgettable moment at a time.
“If I start thinking about getting on the Internet and looking at stuff about the other team or rankings, I have to stop what I am doing because I can’t function,” Herrington said. “If I start thinking about it, that’s all I can think about. I can hardly sleep.”
Distractions like that weighed on last year’s Crisp team, which saw it’s undefeated season end in the Elite 8 in a sweep against Allatoona.
“Last year everybody on this team got on (message boards) and created accounts and would get on there and talk, and that really got to us,” Tyler said. “At the beginning of this year, we tried to establish everybody to not even get on that site, look at the rankings or do any of the talking. We wanted to just worry about our game and our team. We would do our talking on the field.”
Tyler’s talents have attracted national attention, and he is likely to get taken in next month’s MLB Draft, but the right-hander knows this season’s journey will be something he never forgets.
“We got beat in the (playoffs) my sophomore and junior years, and we would always sit right there in the outfield after we lost and the seniors would be crying and crying,” Tyler said. “Whenever they would say it was their last game ever, it was heartbreaking. We might move on to bigger and better things, but this will always stick with us.”
And so would the image of one more trophy in the fieldhouse.
“We could sit them right next to each other,” Herrington said. “And that’s a long amount of time in the middle of them.”