Led by sixth-year head coach Rod Murray, front row, center, the Deerfield baseball team will take aim today at ending the school’s 10-year state championship drought when it opens the GISA Class AAA state title series in Macon against defending champ Tattnall Square. (email@example.com)
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WHO:Deerfield (19-10) at Tattnall Square (25-7-1).
WHAT: GISA Class AAA state championship, best-of-three series.
WHEN: 6 p.m. today — Game 1; Game 2 will be 2 p.m. Saturday, followed immediately by Game 3, if necessary.
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MACON — It sits next to the Deerfield-Windsor baseball field like a beacon, always visible and always tantalizing.
The sign listing Deerfield’s four state championship baseball teams is nailed to the side of the concession stand just outside of left field, and the Knights see it every time they step on the diamond.
1984, 1997, 1998, 2003 …
Every now and then senior Weston King imagines 2013 being added to the list.
“That would look pretty good,” King said at practice Wednesday as he glanced at the sign. “We want all of our hard work to mean something.”
It’s been a decade since the Knights have added a date to the wall of champions, but they can end the 10-year drought this weekend in Macon, where they will play defending champ Tattnall Square for the GISA Class AAA state title.
It’s the last notch on the belt for a DWS senior class that won state in basketball as freshmen and then won it all in football as sophomores and seniors.
“It would feel awesome to have 2013 up there,” said senior Davis Hines, one of eight DWS baseball players who won a state football championship six months ago. “Football is tough. You have to fight for every inch in those four games, but in baseball I feel like you would have an even bigger relief to get through every series.”
Rod Murray is in his sixth season as head coach of the Knights, and year after year he has come up short of a title. Deerfield has appeared in the Final Four in all but one of Murray’s seasons and lost in the state title series in 2008 and 2011.
Tattnall not only won last year’s state championship, but the Trojans have won four in the last decade.
They know how to win the big one in Tattnall, but Murray believes his team — which includes nine seniors — is finally ready to end its drought and update that board next to left field.
“We look at that every day when we come into practice and every day when we leave,” Murray said. “It’s always there, and it’s perfectly placed so it will help you zone in at practice and dig in during game time. It would be so much fun to bring another title here.”
And the Knights believe they have the pitching and the leadership to do so.
A deep pitching rotation that includes King (8-2), Austin Murphy (5-2), Justin Glover (4-1) and Coleman Butler (2-3) lifted Deerfield to a semifinal win against Brookwood. Hines, a centerfielder who has committed with the University of Georgia along with teammate Harris Webb, thinks it’s the Knights’ pitching staff that gives them a great chance in any series.
“A lot of teams have that No. 1 pitcher and then it drops off from there, but we have the depth at that pitching spot and the consistency on defense to win games in the series,” Hines said.
The Knights were 0-2 in the regular-season series against Tattnall, losing 7-1 in the season’s opening week when several of the DWS basketball players had little time practice and then 5-4 earlier this month in Albany. Butler, King and Glover all pitched in that one-run loss, and King had a chance to win it at the plate but had a walk-off homer robbed at the wall in center field.
The kids at Deerfield believe they can play with Tattnall, which swept Mount de Sales in the state semifinals and has won nine of its last 10 games.
“We are the two teams that are consistent throughout our lineup and consistent in our pitching staff and consistent in our defense,” Hines said. “It’s going to be a great matchup. We saw here (in the regular season) that it came down to a walk-off Weston almost hit and was robbed by their center fielder. We feel like we shouldn’t have been in the situation last time to where we had to hit a walk-off, but we know we are the best two teams in the state.”
Tattnall (25-7-1) is tied for first with Westfield in the Class AAA rankings, while Deerfield (19-10) ended the regular season fourth in the coaches’ poll. It was Tattnall that eliminated Deerfield in last year’s semifinals, but two years ago the Knights knocked off the Trojans in the semifinals.
“It seems like we just play them every year, and not just during the season. When we play, they’re the big games, the playoff games,” Tattnall senior catcher Tyler Ward told The Macon Telegraph this week. “I don’t think there’s any team I’d rather play for the championship than Deerfield. There’s just something special about playing them. We all know each other.”
And the Knights know how dangerous the Trojans can be, especially starting pitcher Taylor Ferringer, who is 6-3 this season and has a 0.70 ERA and a team-high 93 strikeouts in 79.2 innings pitched. Cory Bartholomew is Tattnall’s No. 2 starter and has a 2.66 ERA and a team-high four saves. At the plate, Ward brings the power and leads the team with nine homers and 34 RBI while hitting .319. His brother, Jonathon Ward, leads the Trojans with a .378 batting average.
It’s been another banner year in Macon, where Tattnall is led by seven seniors and is 15-2 on its home diamond, but the Knights are as hot as anybody right now.
Leadoff hitter Kh’Ron McClain leads Deerfield at the plate with a .445 batting average, while Hines (.432) and Webb (.427) are both hitting above .400.
The Knights have won five of six in the playoffs — including sweeps of Westfield and Dominion Christian — and seem to be peaking at just the right time. This season, however, didn’t start out exactly as planned for a DWS team that had expectations through the roof.
The Knights began the year 4-5 and seemed to lose support and faith from the community as the regular season wore on.
“The No. 1 thing coach has told us all year, starting with the first practice we had, is that we have nine seniors and everyone is jumping on the bandwagon and is expecting us to win. And if we lose, everybody is going to jump off so quick,” Hines said. “I think we kind of experienced that because we didn’t have a great regular season. We didn’t have the success that we wanted, and you could see a lot less people coming to our games throughout the course of the season.
“As soon as we started winning in the playoffs, it filled back up. But we aren’t doing this for them. It’s not about the fans. We like that they come out and support us, but we know that can be manipulated by how we are doing. We want to win this for us. We want to win this for our coach.”
Murray said he and his players became even closer through the up-and-down season.
“Every team has its peaks and valleys, and this group has pulled together,” Murray said. “I would lay it on the line for these guys no matter what our record is. These guys are a fun group to coach. It’s like therapy being around them every day. And if you listen to our kids talk, they are all humble. We are a big family, and we all want each other to be successful. That’s what is special about this group.”
But it’s been a special season up in Macon, too, and a winner this weekend could be decided by the smallest of details.
“It’s what we always talk about, the little things add up in close games,” Murray said. “We just have to keep doing the little things right, from situational hitting to bunting people over to throwing strikes and playing good defense.”
It’s all been working for Deerfield so far in this postseason run — and it’s what might just help them add one more date to the list of champions.
“It’s an unbelievable opportunity for us and one that doesn’t come along very often,” King said. “It would be the perfect way to go out for a senior, to go out as a state champion.”