E.A. Sports Today

It’s all come together

UPDATED with Gordo playoff stats

From uncertain beginnings Piedmont has developed into a Class 3A championship contender, faces Gordo in title series starting Monday

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

When the Piedmont baseball team got together for the first time this year Easton Kirk wasn’t so sure how the Bulldogs were going to do this season.

They had lost a lot from the season before and were under the guidance of a new head coach, a familiar and longtime assistant but a new head coach nonetheless.

Deerman told them in that first meeting they could go one of two ways: They could run over the new guy and see how much they could get away with or they could follow his plan and see where it led. The seniors took over, and it turned out OK.

From those uncertain beginnings, the Bulldogs (27-12) are now on the verge of a state championship. They play South champion Gordo (32-7) in the best-of-3 Class 3A championship series starting Monday at Riverwalk Stadium.

“To be honest at the start of the year I didn’t know if we would be that good,” Kirk said. “But we’ve had some young kids step up and coach (Matt) Deerman has done one heck of a job coaching us this year. It’s amazing getting to Montgomery his first year as head coach and our senior year. It’s crazy.”

Deerman took over the program when James Blanchard stepped down to spend more time following his own children’s advancing sports careers. But it’s not like he was an unknown quantity to the players. He has been their assistant coach the six previous years and the obvious choice for a seamless transition.

The key to the Bulldogs rise has been a mighty top of the lineup, an extraordinary display of power and solid front-line pitching.

Left-hander Taylor Hayes has struck out 50 in his five tournament starts. Logan Pruitt has been the winning starter in two of their last three series clinching games. Hayes is 10-4 with a 1.20 ERA and 127 strikeouts this season. Pruitt is 7-2 with a 2.30 ERA and Kirk is 6-2 with a 2.07 ERA.

At the plate, the Bulldogs’ first three hitters in the lineup – Hayes, Kirk and Taylor Morrow – are all hitting above .350 and have combined for 22 of the team’s 29 home runs, 44 doubles and 114 RBIs. Kirk is hitting .487 with 13 homers and 42 RBIs, Hayes .463 with three homers and 31 RBIs, and Morrow .357 with six homers and 41 RBIs.

“With the amount of seniors we’ve lost these past two years, looking back, we didn’t expect big things and big offense and great pitching,” Deerman said. “We knew we were going to have Hayes, but at the same time we didn’t really know what we were going to have with this group and we’ve had some young guys step up.

“It’s nothing I’ve done. These seniors have taken over this team and they’ve taken these young kids under their wing and led them in the right direction, and those kids have bought in and followed. As a first-year coach you always worry about how kids are going to respond to your coaching style. The guys who needed to step up and be leaders have made my job a whole lot easier.”

Also not to be discounted is the Bulldogs’ championship game experience. Most of them have been playing in title games their whole lives, so the bright lights on this stage don’t expect to be a factor. They have won the last two state football championships and have played in the state basketball title game during their careers.

“You can’t teach that kind of stuff,” Deerman said. “You can’t put kids in pressure situations in practice, you can’t do it in the weight room, you can’t do that in regular season games. Other teams coming in sometimes that stage overwhelms them; I’m not worried about this bunch because they’ve been there, done that.”

The Green Wave are similar to the Bulldogs in a lot of ways. They’re strong at the top of the lineup, have solid front-line pitching and have been groomed on multi-sport success so playing in the finals will be no culture shock either. Many of the current players were fifth- and sixth-grade team managers when the Wave won it all in 2011.

Their core of six seniors has been to the semifinals each of the last three years, but this is the first time they’ve broken through to reach the finals.

“We go into each year with the expectation of playing in the finals,” Gordo coach Jonathan Pate said.

Going in with the approach of “what we think is hot,” the Wave is expected to start Thomas Langdon in Game 1 and can follow with any combination of Coy Chapman, left-hander Colin Herring and Nick Pounders for the other starts. Their three hitters at the top of the lineup – shortstop Chapman, centerfielder Cole Nelson and 1B-RF Herring — have all signed with in-state junior colleges.

Nelson is hitting .471 with 16 hits and 12 RBIs in 10 playoff games; he has at least one hit in each of the last seven games. Nelson is hitting .400 in the playoffs with 11 RBIs and Herring .382. Tanner Bailey is hitting .400 with 12 hits and 11 RBIs, third baseman Pounders .464 and Langdon .343.

“It’s just a competitive group of kids that just enjoy playing baseball,” Pate said.

Sweet Water (30-7) vs. Decatur Heritage (22-11)
CLASS 2A: G.W. Long (35-6) vs. Fayetteville (25-11)
CLASS 3A: Gordo (32-7) vs. Piedmont (27-12)
CLASS 4A: UMS-Wright (26-12) vs. Madison Academy (29-15)
CLASS 5A: Faith Academy (29-6) vs. Russellville (36-9)
CLASS 6A: Helena (36-5) vs. Cullman (37-7)
CLASS 7A: Auburn (27-10) vs. Vestavia Hills (21-17) or Hoover (39-10).

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