E.A. Sports Today

Bulldogs looking for more

Area champion Piedmont facing familiar playoff opponent; JCA faces tall order

AHSAA Baseball Playoffs
County teams series
(Starts Friday)

1A: JCA at Decatur Heritage, 1 p.m.
1A: Meek at Donoho, 2 p.m.
3A: Glencoe at Piedmont, 5 p.m. (3 p.m. Saturday, if necessary)
3A: Wellborn at Westbrook Christian, 5 p.m. (1 p.m. Saturday, if necessary)
4A: Cherokee County at Jacksonville, 4:30 p.m. (3 p.m. Saturday, if necessary)
5A: Springville at Alexandria, 4:30 p.m. (1 p.m. Saturday, if necessary)

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

As the Piedmont Bulldogs embark on another run in the state baseball playoffs, you can’t help but wonder if they could find a way to stay away from the private schools they could actually bring one of these titles home.

The Bulldogs open the Class 3A playoffs Friday at home against Glencoe. They enter the series as area champions for the fourth year in a row — since the time their current seniors were freshmen — and over the previous three years they haven’t lost to a public school in the playoffs. They’ve beaten Glencoe in the first or second round each year along the way.

In 2012, they were swept by Trinity Presbyterian in the championship series. In 2013, they were taken out by an eventual runner-up Mars Hill team with two SEC pitchers in the quarterfinals. Last year, they were eliminated by eventual state champion Madison Academy in the semifinals in three games.

The Bulldogs ran through their area this year undefeated and currently own a 19-game area winning streak. Tyler Lusk and Cale McCord have played on all four of area champions. Friday’s Game One starter Peyton Whitten has been on the last two.

“We don’t talk as much about going undefeated as winning it,” Bulldogs coach James Blanchard said. “Baseball, it’s a tough game as far as going undefeated in the area. Our goal is to just win the area so we can host the first round.”

The series winner gets either Westbrook Christian or Wellborn.

The Bulldogs certainly have the pitching to make a long run with starters Whitten, Hayes and Bayley Blanchard and closer Lusk.

They recently lost two starters for the season — slugger Payton Young and steady outfielder Devin Hincey — for administrative reasons, but they’ve tweaked the lineup and have continued to hit the ball.

They had 27 hits in their final two games in Gulf Shores (with Payton out with a hamstring injury). They had 18 hits in a recent 13-2 win over Wellborn that completed another 9-0 run through their area and Monday they beat Spring Garden 19-0. They had 18 hits in the Wellborn game, 13 against Spring Garden.

“You lose a kid like Payton … that takes your home run swing and Devin was such a good outfielder, as good as we have,” Blanchard said. “You just can’t replace a kid like him in the lineup, but we’ve had other guys step up.”

The Bulldogs basically just moved everyone up one spot in the lineup. Bayley Blanchard became the leadoff hitter and leads the team in virtually every offensive category. He’s followed by Lusk, Whitten, Easton Kirk and McCord. Catcher Derick Baer moved into the lineup and Jacob Doss moved into left field for Hincy.

On Monday at Spring Garden, Bayley Blanchard had three hits, including a grand slam in a 10-run sixth inning, and was one of three pitchers combining for a perfect game.

Whitten, Hayes and Blanchard set down all 18 batters they faced, striking out 11. They threw 67 pitches, went to a three-ball count only twice (one full count) and didn’t have a ball hit out of the infield.

The Bulldogs sent 16 batters to the plate in their big inning. In addition to Blanchard’s first home run, Doss and Darnell Jackson both drove in two runs in the inning.

McCord also drove in four runs in the game and Kirk drove in three. Kirk, Hayes and Goss all had two hits.

The secret to the Bulldogs’ consistent success is the depth of their roots.

“Five of these kids have been with me since 8-year-old travel ball, so you’ve got a consistent group of kids being together,” James Blanchard said. “We put a lot of emphasis on our junior high; where some schools play 12-15 games, we play 30-something. We spend some time with our junior high and building a program there. With anything, it starts at the junior high level.”

JCA at Decatur Heritage

The Thunder faces a tall order in its first playoff appearance since the back-to-back trips in 2004 and 2005. The team starts as many as three seventh-graders and has only two players on the roster who were even in grade school the last time they were in the playoffs. Decatur Heritage returns the bulk of a roster that played in the third round last year.

“I’ve talked to three coaches now and nobody has told me any good news,” Thunder coach Tommy Miller said. “We know the odds, but we’re going in there wanting to do everything we can to have a chance.”

Sophomore Reed Murphy, the staff ace, will start on the mound in one of the games Friday for the Thunder, but remains uncertain about the other starter. He is deciding among Jonah Parker, Jaden Mitchell and Walker Messer. Parker, the oldest pitcher on the staff, is a junior.

The Thunder has never advanced past the first round of the playoffs.

“We’ve had a rough few years and when I found out I was going to need to move back in to coach I felt the most important thing was to make progress, whatever it was,” Miller said. “Actually, this is a reward because we felt like we did improve.

“We’re a long way from a good baseball team, but we’re much better than we were and we’re a young baseball team.”

The Thunder did get a bit of good news to help their experience level. Center fielder Kris Armprester, their only senior, has returned to the team after doctors concluded the abdominal injury that kept him out of the area title series with Donoho was not a condition that required surgery.

MONDAY’S BASEBALL LINESCORES

Piedmont 19, Spring Garden 0

Piedmont 240 30(10) — 19 13 0
Spring Garden 000 000 — 0 0 3

PEYTON WHITTEN, Taylor Hayes (3), Bayley Blanchard (6) and Derick Baer; JOSEPH ROGERS, Andrew McLarty (3), Dawson Broome (5) and Brayden Stordahl. 2B: Bayley Blanchard (P), Peyton Whitten (P). HR: Bayley Blanchard (P). WP: Whitten. LP: Rogers.



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