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PREVIEW: Final Four mainstay Wildcats limp into rematch vs. Bethlehem

Crisp star pitcher Rush Brown, left, and Jordan Howard are questionable for the Wildcats' GISA Class A Final 4 series today against Bethlehem as both are battling injuries.

Crisp star pitcher Rush Brown, left, and Jordan Howard are questionable for the Wildcats' GISA Class A Final 4 series today against Bethlehem as both are battling injuries.

BETHLEHEM — Pitching has carried the Crisp Academy baseball team to four straight Final 4 appearances and turned the tiny school in Cordele into a major powerhouse in GISA Class A.

This time around, however, the Wildcats' rotation seems to be falling apart.

Crisp, the No. 2-ranked team in Class A, will play No. 1 Bethlehem today in a state semifinal doubleheader, but the Wildcats (14-5) could be without their top two pitchers for the best-of-three series.

Jordan Howard, a Georgia Southern signee, is still recovering from an offseason shoulder injury and likely won't pitch more than an inning or two, and Rush Brown, who served as the Wildcats' ace this season, possibly cracked a bone on the index finger of his throwing hand last weekend when he was hit by a pitch.

Brown, whose finger is swollen and bruised, is questionable for the rematch of last year's Final 4 series — which Crisp won in a two-game sweep — but the senior said on Wednesday that it will take more than mere pain to keep him on the bench.

“Now that it's my senior year and we are in the semifinals, I have to go for it,” Brown said. “I know it's going to hurt when I try to pitch, but at this point I can't really injure it worse.”

It's all about keeping the season alive for the Wildcats as they play to honor James Bodrey, a 2012 grad and former star pitcher who was killed in an ATV accident in October.

The team has wrapped its arms around his memory and dedicated its latest postseason run to Bodrey, who was on the mound last season in the Final 4 when the Wildcats swept the Knights, 6-1 and 9-7.

Without Bodrey, the mound just hasn't been the same for the Wildcats, who won a 2011 state championship but settled for runner-up trophies in 2010 and 2012.

“We had to work a lot harder to get to this Final 4 (this year),” Howard said. “We don't have the pitching that we usually have. We have two or three guys we can go to this year, but the confident (ace) like James Bodrey, Rush or me really isn't there.”

Jeff McKinney has been the team's No. 2 pitcher this year and might be the last true starter left standing for the Wildcats, who could turn to relievers James Wesell and Chip Posey to shoulder some of the action in the series.

Whoever takes the mound today doesn't change the fact that Crisp is in for a battle with a Bethlehem team that is 19-2 overall with wins against reigning Class AA state champ Brentwood and Class AA runner-up Windsor. The Knights also return their entire roster from last season and have outscored opponents in this postseason, 57-0.

The Wildcats are the underdogs, but that's exactly how Brown and his teammates want it.

“Most of the last four years we were the underdogs (in the semifinals), so we have to go in there and fight and prove ourselves,” Brown said. “People looking past us is what helps us. Bethlehem was looking past us last year, and once we got ahead they couldn't handle it. I think they are looking past us again."

Crisp coach John Penney knows it won't be easy.

“All we are hearing is that they are the No. 1 team in the state,” Penney said of Bethlehem. “I told our guys that there is no doubt in my mind that we are capable of winning. I think we have the talent to play with anybody. We are going up there knowing it's going to be tough. But do I think we can beat them? I sure do."

If a winner-take-all Game 3 is necessary it will be played Saturday at 11 a.m., but the Wildcats haven't needed one yet. Crisp, the No. 1 team from Region 3-A, swept Thomas Jefferson in the opening round and then took care of Robert Toombs in the quarterfinals.

But then again, the Wildcats, who have won six in a row and nine of 10, haven't seen a team as good as Bethlehem in the postseason.

“We know they are good, and I guess what we learned (last year) is that we have to play our game,” Penney said. “They are solid and are going to come at us hard, so we have to play good defense.”