Class 2A championship series
No. 4 G.W. Long (30-8) vs. No. 6 Westbrook Christian (25-13)
Thursday 4 p.m.; Friday 10 a.m.; 1 p.m., if necessary
By Gene Stanley/Correspondent
Knock, knock, knocking on Heaven’s door.
How many times must a team knock before opening the proverbial door? For Westbrook Christian’s baseball team, the brass ring is finally in sight.
After four consecutive seasons of reaching at least the Class 2A quarterfinal round of the state playoffs, the Warriors finally will play in the state championship series, against G.W. Long.
“I’m honored and excited,” said senior left fielder Clay Templeton. “I want us to be the first team to bring home a blue trophy for Westbrook. Our trophy cases have a lot of red ones, but not a single blue.”
The Alabama High School Athletic Association honors state champions with blue trophies and runners-up with red.
Westbrook made it to the 1997 football championship game, only to lose to Billingsley. In the spring of ’99, the Warriors baseball team finished as state runners-up, losing to … get ready … G.W. Long.
“That was my first year with Westbrook,” head coach Matt Kennedy said. “I just hope that we have better results this time. If determination and work ethic mean anything, we’ll win it for sure.”
The 2013 Warriors have had a big season and bigger postseason, losing only one playoff game – to Ranburne in the quarterfinals.
“We used that loss to motivate us to approach our at-bats better and to hit better,” senior catcher Jordan McCartney said. “We couldn’t hit the ball against Ranburne, but we’ve been waiting better and not swinging at balls so much. Just taking a better approach at the plate and not thinking we’re going to win just by showing up make a tremendous difference.”
Ranburne beat Westbrook, 8-3, in that series opening game on May 3, but the Warriors came back to win the next two games by scores of 11-0 and 5-1.
But it was the semifinals when it became apparent the Warrior bats were once again well aligned. Westbrook defeated Randolph County by scores of 19-0 and 15-1.
“It’s always a load off your chest when your team gets ahead,” senior pitcher Mikhail Cazenave said. “But to have that kind of lead, all I had to do was throw strikes and make them hit. And our defense is so good. We don’t have to worry about getting strikeouts because we know the guys behind us will make the plays.”
How does any team, playing a state semifinal quality of opponent, outscore them 34-1 in two games?
“We heard something right before the first game and it made us a little mad,” senior third baseman Matthew Reaves said. “We went out and took it out on the ball. We were focused so well that we were just slamming the ball.”
The way the Warriors play hasn’t escaped the attention of Long’s coach, Drew Miller.
“I’ve talked to a lot of coaches about Westbrook,” he said. “It sounds as if they have a very well-rounded team that can play all three phases of the game. I’m looking forward to this series. I think it’ll be a very competitive one.”
Long won 12 state championships in a 17-year stretch, but the last one came in 2005.
Therefore, none of the athletes on this year’s squad were even in high school when the Rebels last hoisted a blue trophy.
“These guys out there now haven’t had the chance to see how sweet it is to win one,” Miller said. “But they definitely know about the history. But they’ve talked more about just wanting to win one than about restarting any dynasty.”
The 12 championships is a state record. But because of their lack of success lately – this year’s team is the first to even make the semifinals since ’05 – the Westbrook players don’t know the name.
Asked as a group if they knew anything about Long, there were a lot of heads shaking among the Warriors.
“We’re just going to go down and play our game like we have all season,” Westbrook senior shortstop Alex Perkins said. “It wouldn’t matter if we were playing Alabama – we’d just play like we know how to play.”
The boys from Skipperville finished the season with a 22-8 record and have dominated in the playoffs, winning all eight games, including six shutouts. In the eight games, the Rebels allowed only 10 runs.
Sound familiar? For the record, Westbrook hurled four shutouts in nine games and allowed only 15 runs.
“Our pitching and defense have carried us most of the year, especially the second half,” Miller said. “We’ve made our share of mistakes, both mentally and physically, like any high school team, but we’ve managed to overcome most of them. We’ve had a lot of times when the offense had to come through and it did, with a key hit or sacrifice.”
However, it would appear that the Warriors had a tougher row to hoe in the playoffs, as three of the four opponents were ranked by the Alabama Sports Writers Association, including No. 1 Section and No. 2 Randolph County.
Not one of Long’s postseason opponents was ranked at the end of the regular season.
“At this point, I’m not sure if that will matter either way,” Kennedy said. “But we know we can play with – and beat – any team in 2A. I’m sure they feel the same way.”
The Warriors finished the regular season with a 17-12 record, but the 12 losses came at the hands of two 3A schools, five 4A schools, three 5As and two 6As.
Meanwhile, Long’s losses were almost as impressive, with two 3A teams, two 5As and three 6As. Throw in a close loss to 1A Brantley.
Miller has a long history with the school. His father, Earl Miller, started coaching the Rebels in 1991 and was coach until the summer after the 2005 season, when Drew was promoted from assistant to head coach. Drew played on four of the state championship teams, from ’94-98.
“We’ve been here awhile and our whole family takes a lot of pride in the school and in the town,” Drew Miller said. “People here still talk about certain baseball teams like some towns remember their great football teams.”
“It still seems unreal,” Westbrook senior first baseman Jonathan Ford said. “The reality of it hasn’t set in yet. We’ve been so close the past few years, and for it to happen when we’re seniors is unbelievable.”
The team left Wednesday afternoon, right after the school’s annual awards ceremony.
“We’re hoping to catch that first game (of the Class 4A finals between Charles Henderson and Brooks),” senior second baseman Tracy Patigayon said. “It’s going to be a fun trip. But it will be more fun if we can win.”
The Warriors do have one connection to state championships in assistant coach Brandon Byars, who played during Hokes Bluff’s title runs.
“They’ve all heard me telling stories about how much fun it is,” Byars said. “They’ve all asked me questions, about everything from the stadiums to the hotels. Now they get to get those experiences for themselves and that is awesome. I’m as excited about it as if I were still playing.”