Deerfield star and UGA signee Harris Webb takes a rip at a pitch during batting practice Thursday at the Knights’ final practice before the start of their best-of-three series that begins today in Albany against Brookwood. Webb is one of just nine seniors for the Knights who have tried tirelessly to win a state championship for three years, and they know this title is their final shot. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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WHO: Brookwood (25-4) at Deerfield (17-9).
WHAT: GISA Class AAA Final Four, best-of-three series.
WHEN: 5 p.m. today — Game 1; Game 2 will be 1 p.m. Saturday, followed immediately by Game 3, if necessary.
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ALBANY — Rod Murray doesn’t have to look far for leadership.
It’s spilling off the diamond for the Deerfield-Windsor baseball coach.
And it’s his nine seniors who will lead Deerfield into today’s GISA Class AAA state semifinal opener against Brookwood and who might finally be able to end the Knights’ 10-year state championship drought.
“These seniors want to keep playing,” Murray said. “I think even more so with them being around for a long time and seeing some big series and success, that all helps. Our players here at Deerfield expect something good to happen, no matter what sport it is. That’s just a mindset we have.”
Murray has been to the Final 4 in five of the six years he has been head coach, and this group of seniors have played in the semifinals three straight times, including in 2011 when they lost the state title game to rival Westfield.
The Knights (17-9) dispatched Westfield last week with a thrilling, two-game sweep, and now they will host Region 3-AAA rival Brookwood (24-5), a team they split with in the regular season.
These games mean so much more.
“It seemed like the first half of the season flew by, and then us seniors started putting it into perspective that this would be the last time we would get to play with each other,” DWS senior pitcher Austin Murphy said. “We want to make this last time special.”
Last year’s Final 4 appearance ended in heartbreak when Tattnall Square swept the Knights en route to a state championship.
Murphy and his eight senior teammates — Harris Webb, Davis Hines, Weston King, Kh’Ron McClain, Coleman Butler, Sam Shellhaas, KE’Marvin Pitts and James Moree — aren’t ready to bow out that early again.
“I don’t think we were really ready for that situation last year as much as we are now,” Murphy said Wednesday during practice. “We have matured over the past year, and I think we can look at this series one pitch at a time.”
Murphy is one of a handful of pitchers who have helped the Knights roll through the first two rounds of the postseason with sweeps of Dominion Christian and Westfield, but they will have to share the spotlight on the mound this weekend with Brookwood ace Jordan Bradshaw, who is 7-2 this season with a 2.97 ERA and 79 strikeouts. The left-handed junior was on the mound both regular-season games against Deerfield, tossing a combined 15 innings and allowing just three earned runs and striking out 21.
Hines expects Bradshaw to be on the mound today for Game 1 of the three-game series.
“He has thrown pretty good against us the two times we faced them, and we think we let him off easy the past two games,” Hines said. “Whether or not he has his stuff, he always puts them in a position to win, so we are ready to go out and prove ourselves against him.”
Bradshaw might be the best pitcher in Class AAA, but Murphy believes the Knights have the top staff.
“After Bradshaw they really don’t have anything overpowering,” Murphy said. “I think we have more depth. We have four or five guys who can go out there on any given day and start and get a win for us. I think one of their weaknesses is that we will have a deeper bullpen this weekend.”
Murphy and King were the starting pitchers last week against Westfield, and while Murray isn’t revealing his Game 1 starter for this series, the duo will be key.
King leads the team with a 7.2 record and a 2.10 ERA, while Murphy is 5-2 on the mound with a 2.82 ERA. Left-handed freshman Justin Glover is the team’s top reliever with a 3-1 record and 2.66 ERA, while Butler is 2-3 with a 2.30 ERA but averages over a strikeout per inning
“Pitching has been strong all year for us,” Murray said. “We knew coming into this season that we had some arms that can pitch to contact, and we knew he had a lot of depth on the mound. Right now it is coming up big.”
McClain, the Knights’ lead-off hitter, gets things started at the plate and leads the team with 32 runs scored while hitting .419 with 18 RBI.
Webb (.430, 19 RBI, 17 walks) and Hines (.418, 17 RBI, 16 walks) — a pair of UGA signees — are also on fire in the postseason, while King has a .296 batting average and 19 RBI and Butler has a team-high three home runs and a .270 batting average.
It’s a senior class that won the state basketball championship as freshmen and won state football titles as sophomores and again last fall.
They’ve dreamt of adding a baseball title to their resumé as well and now are only four wins away.
“I’m sad that it’s coming to an end, but if it’s going to end I would rather end a winner. This is what I have worked for since I was just able to walk,” King said. “We do have the opportunity to do what we haven’t done in a decade. Right now we are just living in the moment and hoping we can seal it.”