Today’s going to be a busy day for Straughn’s baseball team.
Its nine seniors will be recognized for their academic and athletic futures after high school at SHS, and shortly after the school ceremonies, the team will board a bus to make the long trip up I-65 to play Oak Grove in the third round of the Class 4A state playoffs in Bessemer, just west of Birmingham.
“The first thing we need to do — and I know we keep saying this — but we’ve got to stay focused,” SHS head coach John Fussell said.
The keys to success for the team are still the same, Fussell added.
“We need to keep pitching well, keep playing good defense and keep hitting,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to play with emotion. Since that first loss to St. James (April 22), they’ve seemed to play with some fire. There’s only eight teams left, and I feel like all of those eight teams wouldn’t be here, if they weren’t good.”
After losing its first first round game 10-5 to St. James, Straughn bounced back to beat the Trojans 11-1 in the second game, and 15-4 in the do-or-die third game that was played Sat., April 23.
The second round of the playoffs were postponed to May 2-3 in light of the recent tornadoes that swept through the state.
In the second of the round series, top-ranked Straughn swept area opponent Headland 10-2 and 11-1.
Oak Grove enters the third round’s best-of-three series with a 21-10 overall record. OGHS swept West Blocton and Holt in the first and second rounds of the playoffs.
OGHS head baseball coach Kyle Hammonds said he credits his six seniors for getting the team this far in the playoffs.
“They’re really the key to why we’re here right now,” Hammonds said. “They’ve been playing for me for the past three years. They’ve just been building each year.
“Their sophomore year, they went to the first round and got beat,” he said. “In their junior year, we got beat in the second round. This year, they’ve stepped it up a little bit more, and now we’re in the third round.”
Hammonds said the “keys” for his team today are pitching and playing good defense in the field.
“I know playing a team like (Straughn), we’re not going to be able to make errors and get passed that real easy,” he said. “We need to field the ball clean, and make as many plays as possible as we can.
“I know I’ve heard they’ve got some good pitchers,” he added. “I know we’re going to have to be real disciplined at the plate, and try to hit the ball where it’s pitched and try to make some things happen.”
Fussell said during a short practice week leading up to today’s playoff round, the team is only concerned about one thing — itself.
“I don’t know a whole lot about Oak Grove,” Fussell said. “We’re concerned about us, and how we play. You just can’t get too caught up with the other team. You’ve got to go out and play your game, and I hope for the boys’ sake, they do.”
One thing that both teams have in common is that each has won four straight playoff games in a row.
Other than the seniors on his team, Hammonds said the players play the baseball mechanics well.
“We don’t have a couple stand-out guys,” he said. “I just think we’re just a solid baseball team that usually plays fundamentally sound and tries to do the right things and hustles, and that’s gotten us to the point where we’re at.”
Additionally, Hammonds said his players are “excited” about the opportunity to compete in the third round today.
“It’s really the first time we’ve been this far,” he said. “They’re fired up, and they want to play. It’s a tough draw playing Straughn. They’re a really good team.
“They’re excited about the challenge and are really looking forward to tomorrow,” he said.
Continuing to play their best baseball is all Fussell said he wants from his players from the time they set foot in Oak Grove.
“I think they will continue to play like they have in these last four games,” Fussell said. “I think for some reason, nine of those boys know that this is the last time they’ll wear a Straughn uniform if they don’t win. I think they understand the brevity of it. “That’s why I think they’ll continue to play with the same intensity because they know what’s riding on these games,” he said. “The players have to realize once we got on that bus, that we don’t have our minds on anything but baseball.”