Before he took over as the baseball coach at Central-Phenix City this season, Chris Heaps kept hearing the same thing over and over from coaches around the state of Alabama:
His new team had the horses to make some noise in the Alabama High School Athletic Association Class 6A playoffs.
Under Heaps' direction, the Red Devils have lived up to that potential. Blessed with three gifted starting pitchers, a couple of solid arms in relief and a deep batting lineup, Central has rolled through the playoffs to set up tonight's semifinal showdown at Fairhope, beginning at 6 p.m.
"From the very beginning, from the first practice, we've talked about a state championship," Heaps said. "If you start playing well and you get hot, anything can happen at this time of the year."
So far, much of the attention around Central (31-14) has revolved around Heaps' three-headed monster on the mound, a rotation of Jordan Brown, Matt Evenson and Cody Hughes that makes the Red Devils a tough out in a three-game series.
Behind that trio, the Red Devils still haven't given up more than three runs in any playoff game this season.
But against Fairhope (35-
6) this weekend, those guys might need more than a little help from the offense.
Fairhope's No. 1 starter, Toby Thomas, is 10-0 with a 0.22 ERA. Behind Thomas, No. 2 starter Ethan Hunt is 10-0 with a 0.93 ERA.
"It may be hard for us to score runs," Heaps said. "If we can score four or five, I think good things will happen."
One of the keys to Central's offense is catcher Paul Waldrop, who almost single-handedly took care of the scoring in the Red Devils' Game 1 win over Enterprise last week by rapping out four hits.
Waldrop, the No. 3 hitter in the Red Devils' lineup, is a team leader in batting average and RBIs. A big kid with power -- he's going to Alabama as a preferred football walk-on on the offensive line with an academic scholarship -- Waldrop has the "ability to change the game with one swing," his coach said.
And the four-year varsity catcher is hard to rattle.
"I've played on the varsity since the ninth grade," Waldrop said. "They called me up halfway through the season, and whenever our ace pitched, I caught."
Waldrop has been catching since he was 9 years old.
Like a lot of Little League teams, Waldrop's squad didn't have anybody who knew how to play the position.
The position runs in the family. Waldrop's dad played catcher at Central, his grandfather was a backstop, and, when the elder Waldrop started coaching his son in Little League, he put his son behind the plate.
"When the kids first start pitching, you have to have somebody back there who won't let balls by them," Waldrop said. "My dad taught me how to do that when I was younger."
The skill matters even more when a team is in the middle of the state playoffs. All three Central hurlers have a nasty pitch -- Brown's curve, Evenson's fastball, Hughes's slider -- that they must throw with confidence. Having a catcher as experienced as Waldrop means they never have to worry about a ball getting past him.
"With the pitchers we've got, as hard as they throw, you just have to anticipate when it's going to go in the dirt and block it," Waldrop said.
Waldrop reports to Alabama on May 31. A state finals appearance means he would have only a week off before heading to Tuscaloosa, but Waldrop would trade a little rest for a chance to fulfill the goal Heaps set at the beginning of the year.
A state championship would be a heck of a payoff for four years of work behind the plate.