E.A. Sports Today

Groomed to win

The core of the Wellborn baseball team heading into the second round of the playoffs has been together for years

Wellborn veterans (from left) Blake Hanson, Jacob Shears, Kane Pitts and Brandt Denham stand together as Dixie Youth Majors All-Stars as 12-year-olds (top) and strike the same pose years later as Wellborn varsity players. (Courtesy photos)

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

When the players on the Wellborn baseball team were sitting in the dugout of the Dixie Youth Majors State Tournament in Montgomery as 12 year olds they probably looked up and down their bench and couldn’t help thinking once they all got to be high school seniors they’d be set to “make history.”

If they didn’t think it, their parents did.

The core of that team already had been together with success for five years, with several playing on the same youth-league team before becoming Dixie Youth all-stars, and there was no reason at the time to think they’d be breaking up any time soon.

And they have stayed together. The core of that team is now the core of the Wellborn High School team that travels to Lauderdale County for the second round of the Class 3A playoffs, and it’s exactly where everybody expected in what seems a lifetime ago.

“All our parents, they’ve been saying it our whole lives when we get up here there isn’t anybody who’s going to be able to play with us,” Panthers catcher Jacob Shears said. “We used to beat everybody in Little League and pretty much (are) playing the same people we played our whole life. We always gave them a run for their money.

“It’s kind of crazy thinking about how long we’ve actually been (together); we’ve all known each other all our lives, playing baseball and everything together. We’ve won a bunch of games together and we lost a bunch of games together, but we’ve stuck together. It’s kind of a brotherhood kind of thing, I guess, kind of like a dynasty.”

You can credit senior second baseman Blake Hanson’s dad, Mike, for a lot of that. He was their youth coach and tried to keep the core group together as kids as much as he could. When they got older they just continued playing together.

Once they joined the high school team, they’ve helped the Panthers reach the playoffs as freshmen, sophomores and seniors – with three different head coaches – but they’ve never gotten to the second round.

The Panthers have eight seniors – Hanson, Shears, shortstop Brandt Denham, first baseman Kane Pitts, center fielder Jordan Montgomery, pitcher C.J. Smith, right fielder Ethan Beadles and third baseman Brandon Swann – and most of them have been playing together since youth.

It is a rare thing for a group to stay together so long. Players move in and out of programs all the time, circumstances change, but this bunch has truly been a reflection of their community – once and always Wellborn. They may move out, as Pitts did for one year to play for Oxford coach Wes Brooks, but they always come back home – and when Pitts did this year he was welcomed back as if he never left.

“We’ve always hung out,” Denham said of the group. “We’ve known each other since we were babies. Our parents hang out; our parents are friends. Everybody always says Wellborn sticks together, but it kind of is true if you think about it.”

The benefit of having such a veteran group is obvious. They’ve played together so long they literally can tell what another is thinking in any game situation. Pitts knows what balls Hanson can get at second, Swann knows what Denham can get at short and the middle infielders only have to glance at each other to know about turning the double play.

How smooth does that make it? The Panthers do this thing in practice called “Perfect 21” where they have to record 21 outs in a row before calling it a day. It’s a lot like a basketball team making 100 straight free throws or a golfer making 100 straight putts before retiring. Miss one and you have to start all over again.

In the beginning of the year it was taking 2½ to three hours to get done. Last Wednesday, in the run-up to their season-opening series at Pisgah, it took 20 minutes.

“The main thing is confidence,” Panthers coach Todd Manning said. “As ninth graders, they step into the varsity as freshmen and are kind of iffy about things. Now, they know the game of baseball. If a ground ball’s hit to them they know they’re going to catch it, they’re going to make a good throw.”

It was heavy lumber more than slick defense that got the Panthers past Pisgah last weekend. They put up 19 runs and 21 hits in the decisive third game and hit .457 as a team in the three-game series with 37 runs, 48 hits and four home runs. They’ve scored 10 runs or more seven times this season

Going into the Lauderdale County series they are hitting .344 as a team with six players having more than 20 hits in 18 games and batting better than .350 – Hanson (28, .418), Denham (27, .397), Shears (23, .359), Montgomery (26, .406), Pitts (21, .382) and Ked Harris (23, .489). Hanson has a team-leading 26 RBIs and Denham has a team-leading three homers and a slugging percentage of .750.

“I feel like we have the power to go out and hit against anybody,” Hanson said.

Back in the day, one of the parents had the foresight to take a picture of the four musketeers of that DYB all-star team – Shears, Hanson, Denham and Pitts – and recently recreated it with them as varsity players.

When the players saw the pictures side-by-side, it brought back a tsunami of memories and inspired a finish for a third picture in the set.

“When I see that I just think of us standing in Montgomery on the Biscuits’ field taking that exact same picture,” Pitts said. “That’s what I see – us standing there after winning the state championship.”

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