With a new-look Region 1-4A baseball tournament starting Thursday, Hardaway head coach Chris Gilstrap hit the nail on the head about the importance for all eight teams involved.
“This time of year, if you show up and have one bad day, then you’re sitting at the house,” Gilstrap said.
Since the region was subdivided after last season, the teams also changed their postseason format. Rather than base seeding in the state tournament off the regular season, teams in the two subregions square off in a best-of-three series to determine who advances. Thursday the teams will play a doubleheader. If a third game is necessary, it will be played Friday.
Nevermind the regular season records; if you win, you’re in.
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Columbus and Cairo grabbed the top seeds from each subregion and host Carver and Shaw, respectively. Hardaway, the No. 2 seed from Subregion A, plays at home against Westover, while No. 3 Northside travels to Americus-Sumter.
Columbus head coach Chad Mathis is seeing the benefits of the Blue Devils’ win over Northside last week, as they get to play at home. He said the grind of the regular season can be a challenging one to coaches and players alike, but his team’s preparation for the upcoming games is what he’s wanted to see.
“Our guys have worked really hard,” Mathis said. “We’ve had a good week of practice. You never know when you get to this point of the season, though. You just hope they respond. It’s just advance and move on.”
Carver head coach Andy Hicks wasn’t thrilled with how the series were arranged, as the Tigers’ position as the fifth team in Subregion A left them seeded as No. 4 in Subregion B. That meant another game with the Blue Devils, the squad which has beaten Carver twice by a combined score of 26-1.
Hicks pointed out the teams’ first meeting was a 2-0 game in the fifth inning until Carver unraveled, which was his big focus. He said his team needs to step up and get the routine outs they’ve struggled with while also understanding how to pitch the Columbus hitters.
“My guys have just got to be confident and know we can go out there and play,” Hicks said. “If we can play a complete game, I think we’ll be just fine.”
Shaw has the challenge of taking down a Cairo team that posted the best record in the region, but the feat is far from unheard of. The Raiders were the only team from Subregion A to defeat the Syrupmakers, besting them 7-3 on March 3.
Shaw head coach Pat McGregor knows that four-run win might as well have happened last season.
It’s been a rare instance to have the Raiders in a playoff atmosphere, which is why McGregor and his assistants have been playing it up for the team. They’ve made it clear this is the de facto first round of the playoffs, leaving it up to the players to keep their season alive.
“We’ve been very honest with them,” McGregor said. “We’ve never been in this spot before. Sometimes late in the season, your practices can kind of drag by. The past week or so, we’ve had a lot of energy.”
Shaw’s last loss in the regular season came to Hardaway, which may be entering the tournament as its hottest team.
After a slow start to the year, the Hawks turned it on before postseason play began. Hardaway strung together three wins in a row and five victories in its last six games to close out its schedule.
Gilstrap credited the team’s pitching and defense for the spark at the near-perfect time.
“You always want to play your best baseball at the end of the year, and I don’t think the last several years we’ve done that,” Gilstrap said. “This year, especially after our start, I think we’re really firing on just about all cylinders.”
Hardaway’s hot finish allowed the Hawks to grab a second seed, knocking Northside to third. The defending region champions went from playing for the top seed in the subregion to having to hit the road Thursday, traveling to Americus to face the Panthers.
Northside and Americus have already met, with the Patriots winning 15-0 on March 3. Northside head coach Dee Miller contends that plenty could have changed for their opponent since then, leaving Thursday’s outcome in the balance.
Besides, his full attention remains on his team.
“We want to go out, take what the game gives us and play well,” Miller said. “We’re only really concerned about us and what we have to do to play well.”
As the games draws closer, the coaches and the players understand the weight of the matchups. At least one win Thursday will help you survive for another day, while two will punch the ticket to the state tournament.
The importance of every pitch, out and inning is no different from the regular season race, which Gilstrap said should prove helpful.
“We all knew it was going to come down to the last week,” Gilstrap said. “Our guys feel like we’ve been playing playoff baseball for the better half of the year. The pressure and the atmosphere has been there for our guys. They’ve known what’s at stake, and they’ve done a good job handling it.”
Jordan D. Hill: 770-894-9818, @lesports
Westover @ Hardaway: 2:00 p.m.
Carver @ Columbus: 3:00 p.m.
Northside @ Americus: 4:00 p.m.
Shaw @ Cairo: 4:30 p.m.