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Russellville revives offensive attack just in time to win third straight title

MONTGOMERY - Heading into last week’s Class 5A state finals, there was little in the way of recent (or not so recent) trends to suggest that Russellville was due for a big series at the plate against Faith Academy.

For starters, the Golden Tigers hadn’t swung the bats well since the second round, when they pounded Arab pitching for 29 hits and 26 runs in a two-game sweep. Russellville had proceeded to bat just .216 as a team against the superior arms of quarterfinal opponent Etowah and semifinal opponent Ardmore, scoring a total of 21 runs in four games.

Then there was the deep and talented pitching staff of Faith Academy, which had allowed a grand total of just 16 runs in nine playoff games—three of them shutouts. In fact, the Rams had held their opponents to one run or less in 24 of their 36 games this season heading into the state finals.

Factor in the Golden Tigers’ extreme home-road spits at the plate this year [they hit more than 50 points higher in the friendly confines of Russellville Baseball Stadium, with more than twice as many home runs] and their relatively modest scoring output in Montgomery in 2015 and 2016 [just 16 runs total in five games against Helena and Faith Academy], and an offensive breakout seemed unlikely.

Then again, that’s why they play the games.

The Golden Tigers got back in a groove last week at exactly the right time, collecting double-digit hits in three straight games and riding a rejuvenated offensive attack to their third consecutive state title.

“We talk about not swinging at marginal pitches until we get two strikes,” head coach Chris Heaps said last Thursday, “and our guys did a good job of that this week. We had some really good at bats. We made their guys throw it across the plate. We didn’t swing at their pitches early in the count.”

Russellville coaxed four walks out of junior lefty Reece Ewing in the first three innings of Game 1 last Wednesday at Paterson Field, building an early 6-0 lead. By night’s end, ten different Golden Tigers had either scored a run or gotten a hit in the 9-1 rout.

Hard-throwing right-hander Gabe Shepard (whose 7-0 record on the season included a 15-strikeout no-hitter in a second-round win over Briarwood Christian) held Russellville in check through four innings of Game 2 on Thursday morning as Faith built a 5-1 lead, but the Golden Tigers chased Shepard in the bottom of the fifth when the first four batters of the inning reached base. Senior Jamison Morris relieved with the bases loaded and recorded back-to-back strikeouts, but a wild pitch and a clutch two-run double down the left-field line by Tom Barkley Scott pulled Russellville even at 5-5.

The Golden Tigers eventually took the lead in the bottom of the sixth when senior Skylar Holland followed an intentional walk to Cody Greenhill with a two-run single to make it 7-5. Faith rallied to score three times in the top of the seventh and then held on for a series-tying 8-7 win, but Russellville’s hitters had worked over Ram pitching for 10 hits and seven walks, exacting a costly toll on projected Game 3 starter Morris along the way.

“Ewing struggled some with his command,” Heaps said later on Thursday evening. “With Shepard, we knew it was just a matter of time. He’s a great talent, but he’s highly emotional. We were just waiting on him to fall apart. We knew that somehow, some way, we were gonna crack him.

“The scouting report on [Faith’s pitchers] was, once you hit those guys a few times, they start thinking, ‘I can’t believe you’re hitting me.’ They have a really large ego, like they think they’re supposed to win. It’s great to believe you’re supposed to win, but you don’t always get what you want in life. Usually, you get what you deserve. Today, I thought we got what we deserved. We worked extremely hard.”

The Golden Tigers landed a haymaker early in the decisive third game, sending nine men to the plate and getting RBIs from Greenhill, Houston Kitterman, Landon Ezzell and Scott in a four-run first inning. Morris, an L.B. Wallace signee who had been 9-0 on the season, struggled to find the zone early and lasted just five batters before giving way to reliever Braxton Bell.

Russellville (38-10) eventually built the lead to 7-0 and held on for a 7-4 win, matching their output from Game 1 with 11 hits. The Golden Tigers batted .372 (32-for-86) in the series with six extra-base hits and 16 walks, scoring a total of 23 runs. Faith Academy (31-8) had allowed seven or more runs in a game just three times all season; the Golden Tigers scored seven-plus runs on the Rams three times in a span of less than 24 hours.

“I saw in the paper where they were allowing two runs a game,” said Holland, who crushed a double to deep left in the fourth inning of Game 3 for his team-leading seventh hit of the series. “I knew we would score more than two runs. I thought maybe we would get three or four, and that would be enough for us to win. I didn’t think we were gonna get nine, seven and seven.

“We were stroking the ball. Everybody was seeing it well. Houston had a big hit. Colin [Garrison] did really well. Being the leadoff guy, he really sets the tone.”

Garrison, a senior right-fielder, and Judd Ward, a senior centerfielder who bats second in the order, set the tone and set the table all series long. They each finished the series 4-for-10 with three walks and combined to score nearly half (11) of Russellville’s 23 runs.

“Just trying to get on,” Ward said, describing the role he and Garrison fill atop the order. “We know those other guys can hit us in. One of us, at least, has to get on every time, and if we both get on, it’s dangerous. Those are usually the innings where we score two or three.”

The first inning of Game 3 served as a prime example. Garrison drew a leadoff walk, his team-leading 30th of the season, and Ward followed with a bunt hit. The next five batters either reached base safely or drove in a run, and the Golden Tigers had a commanding four-run lead right out of the gate.

Garrison extended the margin in the bottom of the second, slashing a triple down the right-field line and scoring on Greenhill’s second RBI single of the game. Two innings later, Ward sparked a two-run rally with a leadoff single in the bottom of the fourth, the 207th and final hit of his three-year varsity career.

“We’ve been working all week on velocity, just being quick with our hands and hitting the fastball, swinging at good pitches,” said Ward, whose career batting average of .467 ranks 16th in state history, according to the AHSAA website. “We started off the second game kind of slow, but we picked it up toward the end. We still should have won it, but that’s baseball.”

Two batters after Ward’s leadoff single in the fourth, Holland smoked a pitch from Bell to the fence in left for his team-leading 18th double of the season. Holland, who arrived in Montgomery with seven hits in 31 at bats this postseason, finished the championship series 7-for-9 with four RBIs.

“To be honest, I have no idea where that came from,” said Holland, who raised his season average 27 points to .344 with his performance in the state finals. “I just went into it and tweaked my approach a little bit. I focused on finding my pitch and hitting my pitch, and that helped. I didn’t think about it as much.

“I shortened my swing down, I wasn’t swinging as hard. I wanted to be long through the zone and short to the ball.”

In his first at bat of the series, Holland roped a line-drive single to center off Ewing; he finished Game 1 a perfect 3-for-3 and then followed it up with three more hits in Game 2.

“He stroked it,” Ward said of Holland. “He was hitting everything they threw at him. He was squaring everything up.”

If not for Greenhill’s epic Game 1 pitching performance (11 strikeouts in a complete game two-hitter) and productive series at the plate (4-for-10 with four RBIs), Holland would surely have been named series MVP—especially after his dramatic reversal of fortune on the mound. The senior right-hander, Russellville’s leader in saves this season with five, relieved in the seventh inning of Game 2 with a man on first, a 2-0 count on Michael Garcia and the Golden Tigers leading 7-5 (courtesy of Holland’s own two-run single in the bottom of the sixth).

Three outs away from a series sweep and a third consecutive Blue Map, Holland couldn’t close the deal. The Rams got up off the deck to score three runs and then held on for an 8-7 win to keep their championship hopes alive.

“After I got that base hit in the bottom of the sixth,” Holland said, “I came in thinking, ‘I just won the game for us. We’re gonna get ‘em one-two-three and win this thing.’ I was pretty confident. Then when I came in [to pitch], I just didn’t have my stuff. I came in on a 2-0 count, then I walked another guy, then there was a passed ball, then a base hit, then a sacrifice fly. It just slipped away.”

Holland had no time to hang his head, however. He was headed right back to the mound to start Game 3.

“After they won that game, I knew I was gonna throw game three,” he said on Friday afternoon. “I had to focus on the next game, take a deep breath and find my composure. I wasn’t nervous about the third game. I knew if there was a third game, it was mine. We were gonna win. But after game two, it humbled me down a little bit. I really had to dig deep again.”

Ward, for one, wasn’t worried.

“I knew we had a better game three guy than them,” he said. “We had started swinging it good towards the end of the second game, and I thought we could keep that going. Skylar stepped up big for us on the mound. He was really throwing good.”

Holland cruised early, retiring six of the first seven batters he faced, before yielding a leadoff walk to Mills and then back-to-back singles to Chris Sargent and Brooks Carlson with two outs in the top of the third. With senior cleanup man Christian Waltman (a UAB signee) at the plate and Faith threatening to put a major dent in Russellville’s 5-0 lead, Holland got ahead of Waltman 1-and-2 and then found the outside corner with a curveball to end the inning.

Holland (6-3) carried the shutout through five innings and wound up allowing two earned runs on five hits in six innings, with four strikeouts and one walk. Heaps went to Ward to start the seventh, but Faith put together two singles and two walks to cut the lead to 7-3 and bring the tying run to the plate with only one out.

Junior right-hander Rudy Fernandez relieved and struck out Garcia for the second out before allowing an RBI single to Braxton Bell that made it 7-4. With the tying run now on first, Fernandez got Mills to ground to second for the final out, nailing down his second save of the postseason and Russellville’s third consecutive state title.

Later, on his way home from Montgomery, Heaps talked about how quickly his team bounced back and regained momentum after letting the late lead slip away in Game 2.

“In the dugout,” he said, “I just told them, ‘We came to win two out of three. And it don’t make a difference which two. Now, it’s gonna be the first one and the last one. We’ve got one game left, and we’ve got each other, and that’s all we’ve got. Let’s play like your freakin’ hair’s on fire for seven more innings, and let’s go home state champions.’

“We got kind of pumped up. I’m proud of our guys. They did a great job of handling adversity.”

After arriving back home in Russellville on Thursday night, Ward reflected on what it meant to be three-time state champions.

“It’s already sunk in. It’s crazy,” he said. “This was a good way to go out, winning it these last three years. I can’t think of a way to make it any better.”

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