By Joshua Price/Sports Editor
Southside High School’s varsity baseball team became the center of attention in the media last week. Thousands of fans, three radio stations and numerous sports writers packed the venue of Danny League Field to watch the Panthers battle rival Hartselle in the Class 5A semifinals.
The Panthers lived up to the hype.
Southside (27-15) whipped the visiting Tigers in the doubleheader, 4-2 and 6-2, to earn a berth in the Class 5A state championship match against two-time defending Class 5A state champions Spanish Fort (35-8) this weekend in Montgomery.
The first game will be played at Patterson Field in Montgomery on May 18 at 4 p.m., while the second game is scheduled for 10 a.m. at Riverwalk Stadium in Montgomery and a deciding third game (if necessary) will be played at Riverwalk Stadium 1 p.m.
We all know Southside’s story, but who is Spanish Fort?
The third-ranked Toros are the two-time defending Class 5A state baseball champions. They defeated Hartselle in 2010 and in Cullman in 2011 in the finals to earn the coveted blue trophy.
“We’ve had some nice teams in the past,” Spanish Fort head coach Tommy Walker said. “We have ten guys playing college baseball right now and some good players returned this year. We lost seven starters off of last year’s team. We only had three guys returning from last year’s championship team. We’ve had to work to get where we’re at today. Not too many people gave us a chance earlier in the year, but here we are.”
Last week, Spanish Fort swept eighth-ranked Chilton County, 6-5 and 13-0, to advance to the finals. The Toros won the first game in nine innings, but made quick work of the Tigers in the second game in only five innings.
Walker said his team features with few veterans off of last year’s championship team. But don’t let all the fresh faces fool you.
“We started this season out 0-3, but stuck it out. We had a lot of guys to replace from last year’s team. We didn’t panic, we just stayed to what we were doing. It was fun to see what these guys could do when it was their turn to play.
Spanish Fort does not rely on the long-ball, very much like Southside. The Toros are potent throughout the lineup.
“We have only hit five home runs this year, so we don’t really have a whole lot of power,” Walker said. “We have a good bit of speed, so we hit alot of doubles and triples. We are solid batting from top to bottom. Our three and four-hole hitters are hitting in those spots for a reason, they are very productive. We can interchange a lot of those guys throughout the lineup and still be effective. Right now, we are hitting the ball very well.”
Southside is not too shabby at the plate either.
Andrew Furhman is the Panthers’ leadoff batter and leads the team with a .402 batting average and 20 RBIs. Rightfielder Braxton Light bats .383 with 19 RBIs, while Caleb Butler hits .372 and leads the team with 37 RBIs.
Like Spanish Fort, Southside relies on the “small-ball” to effectively produce runs.
“It’s a small game out there for us,” Southside head coach Blake Bone said. “With the new bats this season, we knew we had to change our game a little. We felt like it would help us this season because we knew we weren’t a long-ball hitting team anyway.”
Southside bunts the ball as well as any team in the state, and proved that last week against sixth-ranked Hartselle in semifinal action. The Panthers laid down many perfect bunts, which not only earned infield hits, but advanced runners around the base paths.
“We have guys that run well and we bunt well,” Bone said. “We work hard on that stuff in practice. We made the necessary adjustments early in the season and went with it. It’s worked out well so far.”
Drew Mullinax is a perfect example of the style of baseball the Panthers play. His combination of speed and aggressive base running continuously pressured Hartselle last week. His huge leads from the bases are a constant reminder to opposing pitchers that he can run and usually receives many “throw-overs” to keep him honest.
Mullinax is batting .292 on the season, but accumulated an impressive 4-for-5 series against the Tigers last week, while scoring a pair of runs, stealing a pair of bases, and slapped a double to help the Panthers’ offensive assault.
“Drew has gotten better as the season went on,” Bone said. “He didn’t see as much playing time early in the season, but his legs got him in the game. He can do a lot of damage with his speed with his bunting. He is a good clutch hitter for us, too. He has been a big part of a lot of our wins down the stretch.
Southside catcher Cody Pylant was a defensive rock in the semis against Hartselle. Pylant kept the Hartselle runners in check, and threw out a pair attempting to steal second base on him. Pylant also notched an impressive offensive display against Hartselle, batting 2-for-5 with a double, an RBI, and two runs scored.
“Cody has caught a lot of our games this year. He has also gotten better as the season progressed. He has been there for us every game back there and has been very important for us.
Spanish Fort sports three hard-throwing pitchers to counter the Southside offensive attack. Senior southpaw Heath Brown (7-2) will pitch the first game of the championship series for the Toros. Brown has committed to Faulkner University to play baseball next season.
Sophomore Jesse McCord (11-2) will pitch the second game on Saturday morning. If a third game is necessary, sophomore Will Love will get the nod from Walker.
“Each one of them throw strikes,” Walker said. “None of them are overwhelming, but Jesse probably has the most velocity. They all throw three pitches for strikes and that’s what we want. Those guys let our defense play by locating their pitches and that’s what we’re good at.”
Walker said the key to victory for Spanish Fort is defensive play.
“We have always pitched well and played good defense here and we take pride in that. We have 43 errors in 55 games and that’s not bad in high school baseball. We pitch effectively and we play solid defense. At this point, everybody has good pitching or else they wouldn’t be here. At this point in the season, you have to throw effective strikes and can’t miss pitches.”
Bone said Southside’s pitching isn’t that bad, either.
“[Alex] Pondick and [Andrew] Furhman can each throw three pitches for strikes. We trust his stuff enough to work out of some jams. Both of those guys have done that all year long. They buckled down and threw some good stuff throughout the playoffs. Pondick has great stuff every game and Furhman is competitive, he is gutsy. We depend on those two for a lot our wins. Both those guys are just competitors.”
Spanish Fort is excited about defending its championship for the third straight year.
“Anytime you are playing for a state championship the guys have a little more pep in their step,” Walker added. “We still have work to do this week. We try not to get to high or too low. It will come down to who can execute and make plays. Southside is playing great baseball right now. They finally got the Hartselle ‘burr out of their saddle’ and are moving forward with their program. They are going to come in playing confident and loose.”
Walker said he and Bone are familiar with each other.
“I have known Blake [Bone] for a long time. I tried to sign him as a player straight out of high school when I was coaching at Samford. I got to watch him a lot when he was playing college ball and I got to be friends with his dad [Johnny], so we have a little history there. I expect a great series. Both teams are very similar in not only what we have, but what we do. They will be well coached and will try to bunt and run a lot. It should be a lot of fun.”
Bone shares Walker’s opinion on the series.
“Spanish Fort is a young, scrappy team. They are a lot like us in terms of the way we play and approach the game.
Bone said what is most important for Southside is to stay focused and consistent.
“We are pretty superstitious, so we are gonna try to approach this as normal as possible in practice. We have to continue to improve and refresh on the things we do to win. What is most important is looking forward. We have to take it day-by-day. We have to take care of business each day. It will be difficult for our guys to stay focused with everything going on at school, in the community and in the media, but we have to keep focused and concentrate on what’s in front of us. Our school has not competed for the chamionship since winning it in 2001. There have been a lot of good players to come out of Southside and we want to bring home the blue trophy this year.”