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Heaps long overdue to win Coach of the Year

True to the principles he preaches to his players, Russellville baseball coach Chris Heaps is not a ‘me guy.’ He’s a ‘we guy’ through and through.

As such, Heaps would never make his own case to be named Class 5A Coach of the Year by the Alabama Sports Writers Association, which will announce its All-State selections and individual awards this weekend. He’d rather give credit to his players and his outstanding coaching staff, headed up by chief lieutenants Jay Stanley and Eli Fuller.

So we’ll make his case for him.

For starters, a little Coach of the Year love for Heaps is long overdue. He didn’t win the award in 2015, when he guided the Golden Tigers to a 35-6 record and the program’s first-ever state championship. [The ASWA went with P.J. Guy, the head coach of state runner-up Helena.] Heaps didn’t win the award in 2016 either, after leading Russellville to a school-record 48 wins and a second straight Blue Map. [The ASWA went with Matt Seymour, the head coach of state runner-up Faith Academy.]

Guy and Seymour were worthy choices, to be sure, but now it’s Heaps’ turn. If taking a team that lost four of its top five hitters and two of its best pitchers from the previous season and reloading to the tune of a 38-10 record and a third consecutive state title doesn’t warrant Coach of the Year honors, what does?

The Golden Tigers stumbled out of the gates to a 5-5 start in 2017, then got their bearings and went 33-5 the rest of the way. The schedule was as challenging as ever. Russellville won two of three meetings with Class 6A champion Helena and picked up victories over Class 4A semifinalist Haleyville, Class 4A runner-up Madison Academy, Class 6A semifinalist Hueytown and large-school contenders Russell County, Bob Jones, Southside-Gadsden and Grissom, while also doing battle with Class 6A powerhouse Hartselle and the top-ranked team in Class 7A, McGill-Toolen.

Despite breaking in a handful of new starters, Heaps and the Golden Tigers navigated that gauntlet of a schedule and still managed to win more games than every team in the state but one—Class 7A champion Hoover. Over the past three seasons, Heaps has helped Russellville win a mind-boggling 121 games while joining Hartselle (1990-92) and Spanish Fort (2010-12) as the only teams in AHSAA history to bring home three consecutive Class 5A baseball championships.

Back in 2012, his first season as a head coach after a long and distinguished run as an assistant at Hartselle, Heaps was named Class 6A Coach of the Year by the ASWA after leading Central-Phenix City to a 31-16 record and a trip to the state semifinals. Five years later, it’s high time he earned some hardware for making history at Russellville and taking the Golden Tiger program to unprecedented heights.

Elsewhere in this week's edition, we’ve made our case for Russellville stars Cody Greenhill as Mr. Baseball and Judd Ward as a first-team All-State selection in Class 5A, but they aren’t the only Golden Tigers worthy of recognition from the ASWA. Skylar Holland also had an outstanding senior season, both at the plate and on the mound. Holland went 7-for-9 in the state finals and finished the season batting .344 with six home runs and 45 RBIs. He tied teammate Landon Ezzell for the state lead in doubles with 18, and he ranked sixth in the state with 53 hits. Holland also went 6-3 with five saves in a team-leading 21 appearances on the mound, posting a 2.29 ERA and striking out 59 batters in 55 innings.

The ASWA should also take a long look at senior Colin Garrison, a spark plug in the leadoff spot and a top-flight defender in right field. Garrison collected 37 hits this season—including 10 for extra bases—and drew a team-best 30 walks, reaching base at a .406 clip. He finished second on the team with 41 runs scored, 16 of which came in Russellville’s 12-game playoff run.

Senior pitcher Chad Wray also performed at an All-State level this season, posting an 8-3 record and a 2.77 ERA in 16 starts. The South Alabama signee ranked among state leaders in innings pitched (81), strikeouts (96) and shutouts (two)—one of which came on March 10 in a 1-0 win over eventual 6A champion Helena.

Elsewhere in Franklin County, Phil Campbell junior Peyton Thomas should be in the running for Class 2A Player of the Year. Thomas, a shortstop, tied for third in the state with 12 home runs this season, batting .433 with 12 doubles, 33 RBIs, 48 runs scored, 29 walks and only nine strikeouts in 142 plate appearances. He also posted a .585 OBP and stole 15 bases in 17 attempts. As the Bobcats’ ace pitcher, Thomas went 7-1 with a 2.10 ERA and seven complete games in 10 starts. He struck out 80 batters and walked only 17 in 60.1 innings.

Teammate Hayden Copeland is also worthy of All-State honors after sparking the Phil Campbell offense with a stellar season in the leadoff spot. Copeland, a 6’5 first baseman, batted .415 on the year while drawing a team-high 37 walks and reaching base at a .579 clip. He scored 46 runs and stole 28 bases without getting caught. Copeland went a scorching 10-for-15 in four playoff games and finished the season on a 19-game hitting streak. As a lefty pitcher, he finished the season 7-2 with a 3.24 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 41 innings.

Speaking of lefty pitchers, Red Bay’s Chandler Allen established himself as one of the state’s best in 2017. Allen, a Blue Mountain College signee, struck out 100 batters in just 55.2 innings while allowing a miniscule 23 hits. He finished the season 6-4 with a 1.38 ERA and six complete games, including three shutouts.

In Class 1A, the ASWA should take a look at Vina senior pitcher James Barnes, whose 2017 highlights included a pair of no-hitters, one of them a perfect game against area rival Tharptown. Barnes finished the regular season 5-2 with a 2.49 ERA in 11 appearances, including eight starts. He recorded a team-high 82 strikeouts in just 44.2 innings, allowing only 25 hits.

Fellow senior Tyler Renfrow struck out 70 batters and walked only 18 in 47.2 innings, and he also had a big season at the plate for Vina. Renfrow batted .380, drew 12 walks and got hit by a pitch 18 times, reaching base at a stellar .605 clip. He also scored 26 runs.

Senior centerfielder Justin Gravitt was the Red Devils’ top hitter, batting .439 in the regular season with eight extra-base hits, 27 runs scored and a .570 OBP. He also stole 14 bases in 16 attempts. Andrew Upton hit an even .400 with a .576 OBP, driving in 18 runs and scoring 22. Finally, catcher Austin Childers batted .365 and ranked among state leaders with 13 doubles this season. He led Vina with 29 RBIs in 25 games.

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