When Alabama high schools begin their state playoffs on Friday, there will be three teams from the Bi-City area with more than a fighting chance of a state championship.
There is Glenwood, which has a difficult road but has had plenty of recent success, winning three of the past four AISA Class 3A titles.
Smiths Station, ranked No. 2 in Class 6A in the final ASWA baseball poll, has been among the top contenders all season long, and Russell County (No. 3, Class 5A) has won 29 consecutive games.
Coaches of all three teams know, however, that none of that matters if they don’t play well.
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“Anyone can beat you if you don’t play well,” Warriors coach Tony Rasmus said. “I feel like if we play our game, we’re going to be hard to beat no matter what. But we have to play well.”
Russell County (36-6) hosts Jackson in a best-of-three series beginning with a doubleheader on Friday. While many coaches get as much material on opponents as they can get their hands on, Rasmus’ approach is to focus on what his team is doing first and foremost.
He said he didn’t know a ton about Jackson, other than its record and some of the teams it’s played against. What he does know is that the Warriors are playing their best ball of the season right now, and that should be enough.
“I feel like there are only one or two teams that could line up against us and beat us at our best,” Rasmus said. “We’ve gone through some spells of poor defense and hitting, but we we’re playing well. If we keep playing good baseball, we’ll be hard to beat.”
Pitchers Jesse Nelson and Todd Dial will take the hill in the games on Friday. Both have been near perfect this season, with Dial sporting a spotless record (8-0, 1.51 ERA) and Nelson with just a single loss (8-1, 1.22 ERA). As a team, Russell County has a 1.69 ERA.
Smiths Station (31-7), meanwhile, will host Sidney Lanier. Panthers coach Clinton Britton said he liked the first-round matchup for his team.
“They’re a solid ball team,” he said. “They’re not a state contender, but they’re solid. They upset Jeff Davis to get into the playoff, so they’re a good first opponent. We can’t take them lightly. We have to come to play.”
Smiths Station has been led by its pitching and defense all season. It has never been dominant, Britton said, but it has been steady. Its biggest challenge is to score enough runs to take a little pressure off the pitching.
“We’ve had enough offense to give them a little support, but we need to do more offensively,” Britton said.
Kyle Drury and Marc Skinner are the probable starters for the first two games of the series.
The Gators (22-9) face a stiffer test than the others, having failed to secure a first-round bye in the playoffs.
They host Hooper, which they split four games with during the regular season, in a doubleheader today.
“It’s a scary team to play in the first round,” Glenwood coach Tim Fanning said. “If you make mistakes, they’ll make you pay.”
The Gators, coming off eight wins in their final week of play, are on a good run but know Hooper has the ability to string hits together.
“Their hitting is contagious,” Fanning said. “We can’t give them any extra outs.”
Fanning said he thought this first-round game was the toughest in Class 3A, and the road only gets tougher if it wins. Glenwood would have to play Tuscalooa, which has a first-round bye, in the second round.
“The kids know what they’re facing, and it’s going to be a challenge,” Fanning said.
David Mitchell, 706-571-8571; Follow David on Twitter @leprepsports.
Friday’s playoff games
Hooper at Glenwood, 4:30 p.m. (DH)
Jackson at Russell County, 5:30 p.m. (DH)
Sidney Lanier at Smiths Station, 6 p.m. (DH)