Photo: Southside High head baseball coach Shane Chappell (pictured, second from left) has a word with Jacob Little (22) and Mason McGlaughn (24) during a game earlier this season.
By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
The Southside baseball team is in the process of one of the best single-season turnarounds in the state of Alabama in any classification.
Last year, the Panthers found themselves in unfamiliar territory at the end of the season. For the first time in over a decade, the program missed the state baseball playoffs after an 8-18 campaign.
Fast forward one year later and the Panthers are set to host a first-round matchup against Corner in the Class 5A state baseball playoffs tonight (April 19) at Danny League Field. Southside (21-12) clinched the Area 12 championship last week with back-to-back wins over Etowah.
The genesis of Southside’s transformation was the hiring of Shane Chappell as the new baseball coach. Chappell was hired away from Pinson Valley last June after a very successful six-year tenure that included two trips to the state semifinals of the playoffs and five playoffs trips altogether.
Since taking over at Southside, Chappell has completely revamped the program, and his vision for the team required each individual player to buy in to his plan for success.
“Buying in means total commitment on every facet of what we’re asking you to do without question, without doubting,” Chappell said. “It’s almost a blind trust. And they’ve done that. It’s human nature to doubt. But that’s never an issue with our guys.
“There are days we execute better than others, but we’re going to continue to trust and continue to get better. That needs to be unwavering. It’s not about your feelings and whether you feel like this is working or not. It’s about trust. Feelings change. There are days when I don’t feel very good, but I can’t make my decisions based on how I feel today. We’re going to do what we’ve been asked to do, and we’re going to do it to our standard. Our guys were hungry for that discipline, structure and high expectations.”
Despite newfound excitement surrounding the team and program, the Panthers learned early in the season how arduous the road to success would be.
Southside started the year 2-5, including losses to Corner, Hartselle, Hewitt-Trussville, Springville and Hokes Bluff. But Chappell purposefully scheduled some of the best teams in North Alabama to show his players they would “play anyone, anytime, anywhere.”
“I told our guys all year that the first half of the season was all about making progress, competing and playing better,” he said. “It wasn’t about the scoreboard. It wasn’t about winning and losing. It was about competing at a higher level. The back half of the season is about results. We need to win those games.”
The turning point of the season actually came after a pair of losses to Class 7A No. 6 Hewitt-Trussville. Southside traveled to Trussville in February and quickly fell behind 4-0. However, the game was cancelled due to weather. Chappell said his players assumed they would not finish the game, but he had a message to send to his team.
“I told them ‘whatever we start, we’re going to finish.’ So, we made a trip back down (to Trussville) a week before spring break,” he said. “We started the game in the second inning, and they had runners on second and third with no outs up 4-0 to start the game. We ended up getting beat 11 to 1 in five innings.”
Later that week, the Panthers played the Huskies at Jacksonville State University. Southside jumped out to a 6-2 lead before a series of errors allowed Hewitt-Trussville to come back and post an 8-7 victory.
“I looked at our guys after the game, and they were genuinely upset,” Chappell said. “It wasn’t like they were just happy to play with those guys. They were genuinely mad and upset that we didn’t win the game, because we really should have. I said we should’ve won the game, and they agreed with me. I saw in their eyes that day that they were starting to believe that we were on that level.”
As the season progressed, the Panthers started to blossom into the team Chappell envisioned when he took the job. After finishing second in a 62-team spring break tournament, Southside returned home to play its first Area 12 se-ries against Alexandria. The Panthers won the first game, 11-1, and the second, 9-8, after mounting a late comeback to clinch a playoff berth.
Less than a week later, Southside dropped its first game to Etowah, 6-1, in Attalla. However, the Panthers bounced back the following day (Apr. 11) and knocked off the then third-ranked Blue Devils in back-to-back games – including a thrilling comeback victory – to clinch the area crown.
Senior centerfielder Sam Raines has been an integral part of the Panthers’ this season. He said he and his teammates quickly bought in to Chappell’s vision for success and believed this would be a much better season.
“(Chappell) made it clear that it was going to be a different year,” Raines said. “Everyone knew it would be a better year. Last year, as soon as we got down, nobody wanted to be there. This year, everybody came together.”
Chappell admitted his team had a bit of a frontrunner mentality early in the year.
“It’s easy to compete when things are good,” Chappell said. “I noticed early in the season that we were frontru-nners. If things were going well, we’d play well. But if things if things were going badly, we’d turn on each other. We had to nip that in the bud quickly. Since then, we’ve been in semi-adverse situations where we’ve figured out ways to win.”
Like any coach in charge of a contender, Chappell values postseason success and winning championships. However, his first goal for his program is to develop each player into a better person. He said he determines the success of a season based on if his team is committed and if they root for one another. He mentioned that the team chemistry for this group is exceptional and feels as if his players genuinely cares about one another.
“Our first goal is to develop people,” he said. “We’re not just developing players; we’re developing people. We’re not just asking them to be good baseball players. We’re asking them to be good people.
“You can lose games but play really, really great. If that’s what your measure of success is, you’re setting yourself up for failure because a lot of times that’s out of your control. Our guys don’t know their batting average because it’s out of [their] control. You can hit four balls hard right in a row to the shortstop. Does that mean you had a bad at-bat? No, that just means the result didn’t go in your favor.”
Chappell asked his team at the beginning of the season if they were interested in winning or if they were invested in winning. He wanted each player in his program invested so they were prepared to battle through challenges along the way.
“If we continue to do the right things over and over again, the winning will take care of itself if we buy-in and commit and we’re invested,” he said. “Are you invested or are you interested? Investment means that it doesn’t matter what happens because you’re still going to do it. Interested means you’re there as long as it’s good. It’s about being a part of something bigger than yourself. That’s how we measure success.”
Southside started the season unranked and remained so for most of the year. In the final Alabama Sports Writers Association poll of the season released earlier this week, the Panthers were ranked No. 4 in Class 5A. Despite the rise from being an afterthought to a state title contender, however, Chappell said his team still feels like David battling Goliath.
“This year, we’ve talked about David and Goliath a lot,” he said. “There’s a lot more to that story than people hear. David had to understand his role early on and had to accept that. He had to be able to handle that people said he wasn’t good enough. He had to go out and prepare himself before. He understood that trials and adverse situations were preparing him for something greater later on.
“After last year, our team is a lot like David. No one expected us to do anything. No one expected us to win a lot of games. We’re approaching this like we’re going up against a bunch of giants.”
Even though Southside has played the role of the underdog all season, they’re still hosting a first-round playoff series this weekend. Chappell actually coached at Corner for one season in 2008 and he graduated from that high school. He acknowledges it will be a challenging series but also knows that his team is prepared for the playoff atmosphere after last week’s series against Etowah.
“We feel like there’s no one who will be more prepared than us, no one that has worked harder than us, and no one that is more talented than us,” he said. “They may be in spots. There are some teams who might have a collection of better players, but they won’t have a better team. That’s where we are as far as our chemistry and the way we pull for each other. It’s a special group.”