The Smiths Station baseball team was ranked No. 1 in last week’s Alabama Sports Writers Association poll, marking a first in the program’s history.
It’s a nice honor, said coach Clinton Britton, but not much more than that. For the Panthers (17-4), there are much bigger goals than that.
“The ranking is a good thing,” he said. “It’s nice to get recognition for your program. It really doesn’t mean much more than that, though. It’s what you do week to week and what you do in the playoffs that really matters. I’d rather be ranked 50th now and 1st at the end of the year.”
That’s the ultimate goal for Smiths Station, which begins region play with a series against Auburn this week. It will play one at Auburn Tuesday and two games on Wednesday.
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In a way, this series begins a season for the Panthers, who suddenly appear to be a front-runner in Alabama’s Class 6A.
The success doesn’t come as a huge surprise, however, considering the experience the team brought back in 2013. Eight seniors grace the lineup, most of whom have played with the team since their sophomore years.
“Not many 6A high schools have that many seniors who have been playing varsity since their sophomore years,” said Dylan Tomlin, a senior catcher for the team.
Put that experience with the talent, the leadership and the cohesiveness, and the team has a recipe for success beyond the norm.
“We’ve been playing together, the eight seniors, since we were about 8 years old,” Tomlin said. “We know what to expect out of each other. We’re not uptight. We’re just having fun out there.”
Tomlin pinpointed that chemistry as the main ingredient for the team’s success. Yes, on the field it has been the pitching, he said. Britton noted the pitching and defense as two main factors for the team, as well, but Tomlin said the chemistry has preceded even that in the hierarchy of importance.
“We’re real loose,” he said. “When it’s time for the game, we know when to be serious. But when we’re practicing and everything, we like to stay loose and have fun with each other. That’s why we’re out there.”
“This is a confident, but laid-back bunch,” Britton said.
That laid-back approach hasn’t prevented the team from losing its edge, though, perhaps another reason it has put together such a solid early-season run.
Pitcher Ulysses Fluellen said that the team maintains its aggressiveness in a number of areas: At the plate, on the mound and on the basepaths.
“We’re aggressive on the bases, we like to steal,” he said. “We like to keep it loose and fun and we don’t like to be too serious, but we’re still just as competitive.
“When you’re loose and having fun, you can just focus on winning.”
Senior pitcher Kyle Drury noted that the cohesion between the players helps in other areas, too.
“It’s all coming together now,” he said. “We know each other, we know each other’s tendencies and we’re comfortable with pointing out where other guys need work. Nobody takes offense to anything, because they know we’re just trying to help.
“We’ve put in a lot of hard work and made sure we don’t take a day off. When we’re on the field, we’re not wasting our time.”
Players and coaches alike hope that this approach will be successful in the long run. Britton said that he knows his guys aren’t the only one’s with their eyes on the big prize and that it is going to be a long process to make that a reality at the end of the season.
“Everybody wants to be No. 1 at the end, and that’s what we want to be,” he said. “It’s one week at a time and one game at a time. Our area play is coming up, and that’s what we have to focus on right now. If you don’t do well at that, you won’t have a chance anyway.”
David Mitchell, 706-571-8571; Follow David on Twitter @leprepsports.