Combination of several factors could mean end of CCHS’s reign

Published 4:53 pm Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A perfect storm—literally and/or figuratively—of factors threaten to foil Chilton County’s bid for a fifth consecutive county baseball tournament championship.

No CCHS player has experienced not winning the county tournament, but the Tigers this year will have to overcome the challenges presented by the competition, a new tournament site, a new tournament format, a first-year coach and, maybe, the weather. So, far the Tigers seem unfazed.

Game 1: Chilton Co. vs. Verbena—4:30 p.m. Fri.

Game 2: Maplesville vs. Thorsby—7 p.m. Fri.

Game 3: Isabella vs. Game 1 winner—noon Sat.

Game 4: Jemison vs. Game 2 winner—3 p.m. Sat.

Championship game—6 p.m. Sat.

single elimination format

seeding determined randomly

“To be honest, there just really has not been a lot of talk about it,” CCHS coach Josey Shannon said about his team’s practical approach. “My guys are just kind of going about their day-to-day business.”

CCHS has been the county’s best team by far the past four years, something that wouldn’t seem likely to change because Jemison and Maplesville, the biggest threats to the streak in 2008, lost significant portions of their roster to graduation.

But Class 2A No. 3 Thorsby is off to an impressive 12-1 start, and 6-6 Jemison suddenly features a potent offense to go along with veteran pitchers Eric Argo and Kris Lowrey. After hitting no home runs in their first nine games, the Panthers have six long balls by four different players in their last three games—all wins.

“We’re hitting the ball pretty well right now,” Jemison coach Jason Easterling said. “If we can continue to hit and get good pitching, we might have a chance.”

Jemison will likely improve its chances by hosting the tournament, which has never been held anywhere other than Jack Hayes Field, where CCHS plays its home games.

“We just wanted to play at home where we’re comfortable,” Easterling said and added that much effort and more than $5,000 have been spent to improve Jemison’s field. New features include a fence that encloses the field and bleachers, a windscreen, a second batting cage and a mound on the visitors’ side of the field.

Besides a new location, the tournament will be different in that it will follow a single-elimination and be played over two days. Since the mid-1990s, the tournament has been double-elimination and played over five days.

Easterling said the schedule for graduation exams, which are being held this week, forced the change. The fewer number of games should provide an advantage for the teams in smaller classifications that are usually short on pitching.

For example, Isabella or Thorsby could, theoretically, win the tournament by using only two pitchers. Jemison, by comparison has at least six players than can pitch, and CCHS has eight.

“I think it puts everybody on a little more of an even scale,” Easterling said.

Then there is the question of how the Tigers will respond in this setting for Shannon, a first-year coach. Shannon’s team is 4-5 after a brutal slate to begin the season, but the coach said the ups and downs are to be expected because he wants to build the team for the end of the season.

“The thing I’m working on right now is not the fundamentals,” said Shannon, who won a few county tournaments as a right fielder and pitcher at Maplesville from 1994-98. “It’s the mentality, the focus, working hard. I’m concerned about the mental part.”

But four CCHS seniors—Bradley Cleckler, William Head, Cameron Teel and Brandon Veazey—don’t want what has become a tradition, winning the tournament, to end on their watch.

“We want to go out, as seniors, undefeated in the county,” said Cleckler, a shortstop that will be playing in his third county tournament.

Cleckler said he and his fellow seniors know how to prepare for the tournament after being a part, as younger players, of teams that have won it. But no matter how well the Tigers prepare, they won’t be able to defeat Mother Nature.

Forecasts at press time called for a 40 percent chance of rain on both Friday and Saturday, and Easterling said the only way the tournament could be made up was if coaches agreed on dates toward the end of the season.

If the games are played, admission will be $5 a person.