For the third straight postseason, Smiths Station will face off with area rival Auburn in a critical series.
Two years ago, the Tigers were triumphant in a second-round upset of a loaded Smiths Station squad that had designs on a state championship. Last year, arguably the opposite could be said as the underdog Panthers topped Auburn before losing in the state quarterfinals.
"Every year, we run into Auburn," Panthers coach Mike Ferry said. "Last year, we were fortunate we were playing well when we got them. Getting a win there, these kids have in the back of their minds that even though the regular season didn't go well for us this year against them, we have that ability."
This year, in a smaller postseason field in Class 7A, the two teams will meet with a trip to the state semifinals on the line.
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To get there, Smiths Station will have to flip a script that was heavily in the Tigers' favor in the regular season.
Auburn swept three games from the Panthers, winning two of them by 10 runs. But that was then. Now, Smiths Station is coming off a pair of series victories, winning two out of three against Central to close the regular season and two of three against Enterprise to open the playoffs.
"They're always one of the better teams in the state," Ferry said of Auburn. "They're a measuring stick for everyone because they've been there. This year is no different."
Last week, the Panthers were pushed to the brink of elimination following a 7-3 loss to Enterprise to open the series, but they rebounded with wins of 6-2 and 9-2. They have been bolstered by their pitching rotation of Blake Rivera, Max Newton and Trent Hollingsworth, but they have also gotten key contributions at the plate throughout the lineup. Nigel Lawrence, for one, has hit key three-run homers in each of the past two close-out games.
Auburn, meanwhile, easily dispatched Prattville in its opening series, winning 9-3 and 12-2. It utilizes a wealth of arms on the mound. Its ability to bring in relief and rely on multiple strong starters makes it a difficult team to top in a three-game series.
"In the past, they've had to coach around not having a dominant arm," Ferry said. "This year, they have a couple kids who can dominate the game if you allow them to."
Six other area baseball teams will compete in their respective playoffs beginning today, as well.
Columbus, Brookstone, Harris County and Calvary Christian will each play home series, while Hardaway and Jordan will hit the road.
After a rugged race for the Region 1-AAAAA title, Columbus, Harris County and Hardaway each has designs on long stays in the Class AAAAA playoffs.
Columbus is led by a couple of aces on the mound in Cason Greathouse and Troy Gilliland, but it will be without its most highly touted player, Al Jones, who underwent surgery on Wednesday to repair a broken hamate bone.
While that news is of obvious significance, Jones had been absent for a large portion of the regular season, leaving Columbus plenty of opportunity to adequately replace him.
The Blue Devils are hosting Lakeside-Evans.
For Harris County, it will utilize its experience, sporting a senior class of eight players, to make its postseason push. It lost in three games to Starr's Mill in the second round a year ago after winning a region title.
As a 2 seed this year, it will have to get past Jones County in the first round, a 3 seed with 20 regular-season wins.
Hardaway will play at Greenbrier, which advanced to the Class AAAAA semifinals last year.
Jordan will play at Southeast Bulloch, a 3 seed in Class AAA, Brookstone will host Mount de Sales in Class A-private and Calvary Christian will host Covenant in the GICAA Division I first round.