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Dynasty Delivered: Heaps helping Golden Tigers find sustained success

MONTGOMERY - Hartselle baseball isn’t so much a program as it is a machine, churning out one championship-caliber team after another despite key changes in personnel on a seemingly annual basis. Few teams reload like the Tigers, who have won more than a thousand games and eight state titles in legendary head coach William Booth’s 30-year career.

Chris Heaps was a key cog in the Hartselle machine, first as a senior second baseman on the 1990 team that won the first of those eight championships and later as an assistant coach on Tiger teams that won it all again in 1999, 2000 and 2009. At Hartselle, Heaps learned what it took to withstand the loss of next-level talent and continue to win big, and he brought that knowledge with him to Russellville when he was hired early in the summer of 2012.

Five years later, it’s clear that the same principles that have helped Hartselle compete at a championship level for the past quarter-century are working just as effectively at Russellville, too. Prior to 2015, the Golden Tigers had advanced to the state semifinals just once in program history and had never made it to Montgomery; over the past three seasons, they’ve won 121 games while joining Hartselle (1990-92) and Spanish Fort (2010-12) as the only baseball programs in AHSAA history to win three consecutive Class 5A titles.

“That means a lot to be in the mix with Spanish Fort and Hartselle, with the teams they had,” said Heaps, who has a record of 162-63 in five seasons at RHS. “That’s a special thing. I think these teams we’ve had are as good as any of those. We’ve had a lot of talent, but the biggest thing is we’ve had a lot of guys that believed in us. They loved the team.

“On a daily basis, I wake up every day, and I’ve never, ever, ever been one to accept mediocre. I’ve never wanted to be around mediocre. I’ve always believed that if I can bring a high level of enthusiasm and convince young men that mediocre is our enemy, we could do great things.”

Getting teenagers to battle mediocrity and to embrace the idea of being ‘we guys’ instead of ‘me guys’ isn’t easy, but Heaps has found a way to get his message through. A skillful motivator and tireless worker, he firmly believes in the power of repetition—whether that means fielding a thousand grounders, hitting a thousand curveballs or hammering home the same principles day after day after day.

“I learned so much stuff here,” said Skylar Holland, who hit .330 with 13 home runs and 107 RBIs over the past two seasons after transferring from Hartselle the summer before his junior year. “Coach Heaps’ philosophies, they’re just great. When he tells us his philosophies, we don’t always pay attention to them, but he tells them to us so much, they stick in our head until we do it.

“Everybody buys into ‘we over me.’ Everybody buys into team. We’re like brothers. It’s like a family here. That’s what I love about it. I’ve grown so much as a person and a player here, the whole nine yards. But to think I was gonna be part of winning back-to-back [state titles] for me and a three-peat for the team, I had no idea. It still amazes me.”

Holland was one of only two new starters for the Golden Tigers when they repeated as state champs in 2016; this season, he was one of just five returning starters for a team that had to replace four of its top five hitters (Reed Smith, Landon Oliver, Austin Kitterman and Austin Bohannon) and two of its top three pitchers (Kitterman, Bohannon). Granted, the team was still built on the foundation of pre-season All-Americans Cody Greenhill and Judd Ward, but not even they were sure what to expect in 2017.

“When people at church or around Russellville asked me how we’d be,” Greenhill said, “I would tell them, ‘We may win the area, we may not. We may make it past the first round, we may not.’ But after seeing all the hard work and all the hours and effort we put in, it definitely paid off.”

A historic performance from Greenhill (who set school records this season with 16 home runs at the plate and 144 strikeouts on the mound), along with huge seasons from both Ward (who led the team with a .410 average, 59 hits, 58 runs scored and a .521 OBP) and Holland (who batted .344 with 25 extra-base hits and 45 RBIs while also delivering six wins, five saves and 55 high-quality innings on the mound), obviously played a key role in Russellville’s success in 2017. But the Golden Tigers don’t win 38 games (the third-most in a single season in program history) or a third straight Blue Map without the continued improvement of fellow veterans Russ Carpenter, Landon Ezzell, Colin Garrison and Chad Wray or the crucial development of far less experienced players like Houston Kitterman, Tom Barkley Scott, Rudy Fernandez and Noah Gist.

“Getting younger players to buy into their roles is the key,” said Heaps, whose team took two out of three from Faith Academy last week in Montgomery to wrap up title number three. “I told these guys in the dugout after the game, ‘I’m so proud of all of you guys—not just you guys who played in this game.’ I’m proud of how much better we’ve gotten at practice over these past five weeks. Jaret Ward is swinging the bat better. Colton Madden is swinging the bat batter. Rudy has gotten better, Noah has gotten better, [Devin] Buckhalter is getting better. Those guys get that experience and those extra practice reps, and it’s crucial.

“You have to coach those guys and throw BP to those guys and teach those guys just like you do your starters. That way, when their time comes, you don’t really have to rebuild—you just have to reload.”

The signs of a successful reload by Russellville were everywhere in last week’s state finals. There was Garrison, who moved from the nine-hole to the leadoff spot as a senior, sparking the offense with four hits, three walks and five runs scored in the series. There was Gist, drawing a walk and scoring a pair of runs in a 9-1 rout in Game 1. There was Wray, striking out nine Faith Academy batters and battling through six innings in Game 2 to get the Golden Tigers within three outs of a sweep.

After the Rams rallied to extend the series with an 8-7 win, there was Ezzell, delivering a pair of key sacrifice flies in Game 3. There was Kitterman, going 2-for-3 with two RBIs to help Russellville build a 7-0 lead. There was Scott, following up his two-hit game on Thursday morning with another two-hit game on Thursday afternoon. And there was Fernandez, bouncing back from a shaky relief outing in Game 2 to record a strikeout and a series-ending groundout in the seventh inning of Game 3 to snuff out another Faith rally.

After Kitterman gloved that slow bouncer off the bat of Parker Mills and threw to first for the final out in a 7-4 win, the Golden Tigers found themselves dog-piling in the Riverwalk Stadium infield for a second straight year. [They clinched the first title, in 2015, just a few blocks away at Paterson Field.] Former Russellville ace Jacob Green, who won all five of his starts and threw a pair of shutouts during that 2015 playoff run, reflected last week on what it was like to help lay the foundation for a dynasty and then watch it continue to grow.

“It’s an honor,” said Green, who pitched the past two years for Shelton State Community College. “It makes you feel like maybe there’s something we did, just something small here or there, that planted a seed in some of these younger guys. You have to win every day at practice. That’s one thing Coach Heaps pushed with us, and I know he continues to do that. If they took anything from us older guys that have graduated, including last year’s class, I really hope they took away our work ethic and what it takes to be a champion.

“You really have to be a state champion every day, especially to return three times in a row and bring back three Blue Maps.”

The three-peat may have officially begun in 2015, but another former Golden Tiger said the groundwork for the current dynasty was laid the year before—during a season in which Russellville finished eight games under .500 and missed the playoffs altogether.

“It doesn’t just go back to three years ago,” said Austin Kitterman, a 2016 graduate of RHS who just completed his freshman season at Union University. “It goes back to when we were all sophomores [in 2014]. We worked so hard that year, but we just couldn’t put the pieces in the right place. We ended up going 16-24 and missing the playoffs, coming off a good year the year before.

“That core group, we got the taste of losing in our mouth, and we didn’t like it. It just shows how competitive we are and how hard we worked from our tenth-grade year to our eleventh-grade year. We matured so much, and we got to the point where we could compete at a high level.”

Maintaining that high level over a period of years as old players move on and new players step in is the real challenge, and it’s one that Russellville appears to be handling quite well. The torch must be passed from one year to the next, from one group to another, and Greenhill remembers how it felt to inherit the role of staff leader from Green after the first championship in 2015.

“I definitely took what he said and used it,” Greenhill said. “We put in the hard work and the effort it takes to win two more state championships. I feel like this younger group, they’ll have to find their pitching and fill in some spots, but they’ll be okay. They know how to play.”

Austin Kitterman agreed.

“It’s definitely a blessing to be a part of something like this,” he said. “I hope Russellville keeps winning state championships for the next five years. They’ve got the talent, and they’ve got a coaching staff that’s gonna work those guys like they worked us.

“The young guys now have that mentality that they have something to live up to. When you’ve been state champions three times in a row, why would you not wanna do it, too?”

As the 2017 season ends and 2018 beckons, Greenhill and his fellow seniors are now the ones sending the torch on down the line. With that in mind, he sent a text message to the team’s younger players shortly after last Thursday’s series-clinching win in Game 3.

“I told them I was proud of them for stepping up and helping us get this done,” he said. “It means a lot for me to go out this way.”

The thought of Greenhill, Ward and company going out and not coming back would stir strong emotions in any coach, and Heaps is no exception. Still, he welcomes the challenge of keeping the machine humming.

“I had sadness in my heart today, just thinking about a lineup without Cody in it,” Heaps said last Thursday night. “It hurts my feelings, you know. I wanna just enjoy this one, but thinking about a lineup with no Cody Greenhill, no Judd Ward, no Skylar Holland, no Colin Garrison…wow. It’s the same way I felt about Reed Smith and all those guys last year. But we’ll saddle this thing back up and try to do it again.”

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