Crisp County catcher Chris McGinnis attempts a slide into second base on Marist’s Parker Mathes during Game 1 of Monday’s GHSA Class AAAA Final Four showdown in Cordele. It was a rough few hours for McGinnis and the Cougars, who lost Game 1, 6-3, then dropped the nightcap, 2-1, to end their season at 28-4 overall — and just short of the school’s second state championship. (Alicia Campbell/Cordele Dispatch)
“It’s hard to believe this dream is over. I know it’s over, but it hasn’t set in yet. I just wanted to enjoy it, the last few minutes I had as a Cougar.”
--- Kory Herrington,
One of three seniors on the No. 2-ranked Crisp County baseball team who saw their dream season end in a doubleheader sweep in the GHSA Class AAAA Final Four on Monday night at the hands of state No. 4 Marist
CORDELE — Kory Herrington couldn’t walk away from the dream.
The Crisp County senior couldn’t budge as the memories tugged at his heart and the season slipped away.
Standing in left field with his teammates and coaches after getting swept by Marist in the GHSA Class AAAA state semifinals, Herrington and the Cougars soaked in their remarkable ride one last time.
“It’s hard to believe this dream is over. I know it’s over, but it hasn’t set in yet,” said Herrington, one of three Crisp seniors who saw their high school careers end Monday evening. “I just wanted to enjoy it, the last few minutes I had as a Cougar.”
The Cougars (28-6), who had won 20 straight coming into the doubleheader with 2011 Class AAAA champion Marist (27-7), were deeper in the playoffs than they had been since winning a state title in 1961 — the only state championship Crisp County has won in any sport.
Cordele believed its baseball team — a squad that rolled through the Region 1-AAAA schedule and rose to No. 2 in the state rankings — would be the group to bring home the town’s first trophy in 52 years, and hundreds packed into Diamond Den on Monday night hoping to watch history unfold.
History, as it turns out, will have to wait.
“It’s over too soon. It wasn’t supposed to end like this,” Crisp coach Bill Pate said. “This is a very special group, and they became a family. This hurt all of them.”
Marist won the opener, 6-3, and then War Hawk ace Sean Guenther outdueled University of Georgia commit Robert Tyler in the nightcap, 2-1.
Guenther and Tyler combined for 21 strikeouts in the game, but Guenther, a left-handed junior who struck out 13, escaped trouble in the last three innings to carry the fourth-ranked War Hawks into the state championship series.
Marist’s Michael Toner was the winning pitcher in the opener, defeating Crisp left-hander Landon Whitman, who gave up 10 hits and six runs in 4 2/3 innings.
After the second game, Pate said he wasn’t second-guessing himself about not throwing Tyler — who allowed five hits and struck out eight thanks to his 96 mph fastball — in the opening game.
“I don’t think that would have made a difference because Landon pitched a great game,” Pate said. “Who knows if things fall for Robert just like they did Landon. I don’t think it made a difference one way or another.”
Tyler has been an anchor in the Crisp program for years and was focal point the Cougars’ last two Final Four runs.
Monday’s loses hurt the most, though.
“This season meant the world to me,” said Tyler, who will likely get taken in next month’s MLB Draft. “I had the best time of my life. It wasn’t supposed to end like this, but I wouldn’t change this season at all.”
Tyler nearly began a season-saving rally in the top of the seventh inning of the second game with Crisp trailing, 2-1, when the senior roped a line drive into right field for a lead-off single. But the next three batters struck out, ending a dream-like season in a nightmarish way.
“I thought it was happening (in the top of the seventh), but I guess it wasn’t to be,” Pate said.
Pate and the Cougars stood in left field after the loss for nearly 20 minutes, exchanging tears and hugs and holding onto every memory. They sat around the dugout for nearly an hour as the lights shone on the empty field where tears and sweat were mingled with broken dreams.
“I can’t believe it’s over,” senior Gage McMillan said. “It hasn’t hit me yet. It doesn’t feel real right now, honestly. I feel like we should be coming back (today) ready for practice. We graduated Friday, and it didn’t hit me until it was all over. I’m sure it will hit me again on the ride home.”
Devin Taylor scored Crisp’s first run in the second game when he was knocked in by Taylor Walls in the fifth inning, but Walls, the game-tying run, was stranded on second base.
Marist scored once in the third and once in the fourth and never trailed in the two-game series.
In the first game, neither team threw their aces, hoping to jump out to a 1-0 lead in the series with their star pitcher still available.
The plan worked perfectly for Marist.
Toner, the War Eagles’ junior right-hander, had the Cougars off balance from the outset and didn’t allow a hit until C.J. White led off the fifth inning with a single. Toner was relieved with two outs in the seventh inning and left the game with eight strikeouts and five hits allowed.
The Cougars finally got their first run with two outs in the fifth when Walls — Crisp’s leading hitter all year — picked up his 45th RBI of the season with a single to right field that scored White. Crisp added two more runs in the seventh with a two-out, two-run single from Tyler that scored Chris McGinnis and Walls, but reliever Liam Cotter got Herrington to ground out to end the game.
“We just didn’t make an adjustment (to Toner) until it was too late,” Pate said. “We made an adjustment, but it was too late in the game, and we ran out of outs in the end.”
Whitman got out of several jams, leaving the bases loaded twice and stranding eight runners in scoring position. The Cougars made three errors in the field behind him, and Marist was able to turn three perfect bunts into base hits, ballooning Whitman’s final line.
“They laid down some perfect bunts,” Pate said. “There were a couple of mistakes, but you don’t expect those three perfect bunts to fall in.”
Pate said the plan was to have Whitman scratch out a win, so Tyler could clinch a trip to the championship game in the nightcap.
“We were confident in (Whitman), and he pitched well enough to get the win,” Pate said. “We just didn’t support him with the bats.”
The Cougars, who had swept through the first three rounds of the playoffs, looked a little shaky in the field at the beginning of the game, committing three errors in the first four innings and turning a couple of routine plays into close outs.
The team went into its locker room behind left field during the 30-minute break between games, and when Pate walked out he was confident his team was ready for Game 2.
“These kids have resolve,” Pate said at the time. “They will bounce back.”
And even though they didn’t win Game 2, it’s a ride Pate will never forget.
“I am going to remember these kids individually, each one of them,” said Pate, who has spent 15 of his 32-year career leading the Cougars. “It’s just been a great ride, the best of my career.”