Photo: Etowah shortstop Austin Young (left) tags out Southside’s Connor Johnson at second base during the Blue Devils’ 6-1 victory over Southside in high school baseball last Wednesday (Apr. 10) in Attalla. (Chris McCarthy/Messenger)
By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
Sparked by a standout pitching effort, solid defense and timely hitting, the Etowah High baseball team moved a step closer to hosting a first-round state playoff series with a 6-1 victory over Class 5A, Area 12 area rival and county neighbor Southside last Wednesday (Apr. 10) in Attalla.
The No. 3 Blue Devils (23-8) had the opportunity to clinch the area championship yesterday (Apr. 11) by winning one of two games at Southside. The No. 7 Panthers had to sweep Etowah in order to win the area. Both teams are assured of a postseason berth.
Etowah starter Will Hotalen effectively kept the visitors in check with six innings of six-hit ball. He walked three and struck out six. After Hotalen walked the leadoff batter in the top of the seventh, Britain Nance retired the next three batters to nail down the win.
“We have seen some phenomenal arms all year, and Will is as good as there is,” said Etowah head coach Brandon Johnson. “He’s such a competitor. This was our first really hot day so far, and Will drank some pickle juice in between innings to get rid of some cramps and got right back out there and kept pitching. He was just awesome.”
Hotalen escaped trouble on several occasions. Southside had runners on second and third bases with two outs in the second, third and fifth innings, and in each instance, he either got a strikeout, flyout or groundout to end the threat. In addition, the Blue Devils did not commit an error.
“I really didn’t have my ‘out’ stuff today, but throwing strikes really helped me stay ahead in the count,” said Hotalen. “It would have been a different story if I didn’t have my curveball. Plus, my defense helped me out and made some really good plays behind me. I do my best when I’m under pressure and I’m not going to back down from anyone.”
Southside starter Jacob Little had a decent start in allowing seven hits, four earned runs and two walks over four innings but the Panthers (18-12) stranded eight baserunners and committed several fielding errors.
“Unfortunately for us, [Hotalen] was just better than our guy today,” said Southside head coach Shane Chappell. “He did a good job of mixing in his pitches and their pitching coach did a great job of calling the game. Etowah’s a solid ball club and are well-coached, but at the same time we really didn’t play very well. We had about nine or 10 freebies that we gave up, so we were kind of fortunate that it was only a five-run game. But our guys understand that this was just one game out of a three-game series. The big thing for us is to make the routine plays in the field and pound the strike zone.”
The Blue Devils pushed across a run in the first, second and fourth innings before erupting for three runs in the fifth essentially put the game out of reach.
“I think the difference in the game was that we had quality at-bats,” said Johnson. “Every game comes down to which team gets the most hits with a guy on second [base], and a lot of times it’s with two outs. We’ve been swinging the bats really well the past couple of days, and luckily it carried over into today. But Southside’s a very good team and we’ve still got to take care business tomorrow.”
For Etowah, Will Noles went 2-for-3 with two RBI, Austin Young went 2-for-4 with two RBI, Hunter Smalley went 2-for-2 with a run scored, DeRickey Wright had a double, an RBI and a run scored and J.C. Robertson had a hit and two runs scored.
Mason McGlaughn and Andrew Dunston each went 2-for-3 for Southside.
The Blue Devils took the lead for good in the bottom of the first inning when Jarren Wright singled, stole se-cond, advanced to third on an error and scored on Austin Young’s base hit.
Noles’ sacrifice fly scored Robertson in the second, while Young singled home Smalley in the third for a 3-0 lead.
In the sixth, Wright doubled in Daniel Sieber, Noles singled home Wright and Robertson scored on an error to make it a six-run advantage.
The Panthers avoided the shutout when McGlaughn singles and scored on Dunston’s base hit.
As a former Panther baseball player, Johnson appreciated the atmosphere of a Southside/Etowah baseball game, especially one with playoff implications.
“The last time I as here, [former Etowah and University of Alabama football standout and current NFL Cleveland Browns head coach] Freddie Kitchens was pitching. Sometimes it’s hard to enjoy it and have fun because it’s so nerve-wracking, but I’m happy now that it’s over.”