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Dynasty not done? Golden Tigers conceding nothing as quest for fourth straight title begins

Over the past three seasons, Russellville has posted a mind-boggling record of 121-23 while joining Hartselle (1990-92) and Spanish Fort (2010-12) as the only baseball programs in AHSAA history to win three consecutive Class 5A state championships. That, beyond question, is dynasty material.

But don’t try telling Chris Heaps the dynasty is over.

On Monday afternoon, with the 2018 opener against James Clemens at Choccolocco Park in Oxford one week away, Heaps discussed whether or not the Golden Tigers could continue to win at such a stratospheric level without the kind of SEC-caliber talent the program has produced in recent years.

“We’re gonna believe at the level we’ve been believing at,” said Heaps, who is 162-63 in five seasons as Russellville’s head coach. “We’re gonna prepare at the level we’ve been preparing at. Because of that, I think we’re gonna win at the level we’ve been winning at—maybe not the level we’ve been at in terms of percentage of wins, but when it comes down to 5A, we’re gonna give anybody and everybody a run for their money. These guys believe that.”

The Golden Tigers’ 30-3 playoff record over the past three seasons undoubtedly impacts not only their own psyche but that of opposing teams as well. According to Heaps, though, Russellville’s hopes of sustaining the dynasty don’t rest on any sort of Black and Gold mystique; it’s less about intimidation and more about perspiration.

“One of the things I really believe in is this,” Heaps said. “Most of the time, you achieve what you believe. Right now, these guys think they’ve got an edge—not because of what’s happened in the past but because of what they’re doing in the present. They’re working their tails off.

“There’s not a single coach on our staff who’s become complacent with what we’ve done. Our players are being held to a high standard, and they’re doing a pretty good job of holding themselves to a higher standard.”

That standard was in large part set by the likes of Cody Greenhill, Judd Ward and Colin Garrison, all of whom played vital roles on all three championship teams. They’ve moved on now, along with fellow Class of 2017 standouts Skylar Holland, Chad Wray and Russ Carpenter. That’s a boatload of talent to replace—particularly on the mound, where Greenhill, Wray and Holland accounted for 81 percent (39 of 48) of the team’s starts last season and 68 percent (26 of 38) of the team’s wins.

Senior right-hander Rudy Fernandez, who went 8-0 last year with a 1.75 ERA and also recorded the final out of the Game 3 clincher against Faith Academy in the state finals, will assume a more prominent role after striking out 44 batters in 44 innings (mostly in relief) as a junior.

If the return of Fernandez is big, then the return to health of senior right-hander Landon Ezzell could be huge. Ezzell flashed promise in limited mound duty as a sophomore in 2016, but an elbow injury restricted him to position-player status last season. Fully recovered from off-season surgery to repair his ulnar collateral ligament, Ezzell might be the top candidate to assume the role of staff ace in 2018.

“The biggest thing coming back that should help us—if he does well in his role—is having Landon Ezzell healthy,” Heaps said. “He’s throwing it pretty well. He’s our hardest thrower. He’s been about 86 [miles per hour], and it ain’t even warm yet. I’m thinking he could pitch in the mid-80s, and he throws a changeup. The biggest thing he’s gotta do is buy into being a pitcher and really work on the common things. If you don’t have [elite] velocity, you’ve gotta have command, and you’ve gotta work on some kind of deception.”

Deception is the name of the game for guys like Fernandez and senior righty Tom Barkley Scott, whose 3-0 record last year included six innings of four-hit, shutout ball against Southside-Gadsden in the regular season finale.

“Both of those guys have the ability to be deceptive,” Heaps said, “They can throw a changeup in any count. That’s big-time.”

Heaps likes what he’s seen thus far from senior right-hander Brock Malone, who’s been throwing in the low- to mid-80s in bullpen sessions. The coach also said that submariner Jaret Ward could play “a critical role to our team’s success.” Heaps is keenly aware of the “amazing effect” soft-tossing left-handers can have on overly aggressive hitters, and senior Colton Madden is primed to fill that role in 2018.

Senior Houston Kitterman also figures into the mound mix, as do junior right-handers Caden Parker and Devin Buckhalter. Heaps said on Monday that Buckhalter has been generating “a lot of swings and misses” by the Golden Tigers’ own hitters in pre-season practice. Finally, there’s freshman Gordon White, perhaps the most polished of a promising group of pitchers in grades 7-9.

“We’ve got a young pitcher as good as anybody,” Heaps said of White. “He’s around 80-81, and this kid can go in, out, up and down, and he can throw his off-speed stuff for strikes. He’s just a ninth-grader, but I told these varsity guys, ‘If he’s getting it done and you’re not, he’s gonna pitch.’ I couldn’t care less what grade he’s in.”

The Golden Tigers have quite a few questions to answer on the mound but not as many in the everyday lineup, where they bring back plenty of experienced production. Ezzell, who smacked a team-leading 18 doubles last season as the starting shortstop while also reaching base at a .424 clip and driving in 37 runs, will split his time between short and catcher this year when he’s not pitching. Regardless of where he plays, Ezzell—who has been “scalding the ball” in pre-season practice, according to Heaps—will be counted on to anchor the middle of the order along with third baseman Kitterman, who batted .310 a year ago and cracked a walk-off home run in the regular-season area finale against East Limestone.

Heaps believes that left-fielder Scott (who batted .321 last season with 10 doubles and 21 RBIs) could be a .400 hitter this year “if he can reduce his strikeouts.” The fleet-footed Buckhalter is a candidate to man center field and bat near the top of the order, where he could be joined by senior second baseman/outfielder Noah Gist, whose .473 OBP last year in 110 plate appearances was second-best on the team.

“Noah has the potential to be a leadoff guy,” Heaps said. “He gets on base, and he’s got a great eye for the ball. He’ll take a walk, he’ll get a hit, and he’s got some pop in his bat at times.”

Malone and Gist are both in the mix at second base, with the slick-fielding Fernandez splitting shortstop and catching duties with Ezzell. When one is on the mound and the other behind the plate, Parker is a candidate to handle short. Heaps said that catcher Hunter Briles also has a chance to play a lot behind the plate.

Senior first baseman Jeff Lloyd, who smacked a walk-off homer during last year’s playoff run, provides pop from the left side, and Layne Johns could also see time at first.

“Jeff has the potential to be a big-time bat for us,” Heaps said. “We have a lot of expectations for him this year.”

Junior Nate Green can spell Kitterman at third and also play the middle infield. The lefty-hitting Madden (who drew six walks and struck out just twice in 23 plate appearances last season) is in the mix for the right-field job. Heaps said that Ward, another outfielder, is a candidate to bat at the top of the order. Outfielder Omar Tompkins and infielder Tanner James are also in the mix for playing time.

As for the Golden Tiger dynasty, Heaps is well aware that nothing lasts forever.

“At some point, it has to end,” he said. “We’re not planning on it ending, but at some point it will. And when it does, so be it. The best way to measure a baseball player is not by how many games he won but by how many lessons he learned, and how he learned to deal with adversity in life.

“That’s what made us good. We faced adversity in 2014 [when the team finished 16-24 and missed the playoffs in Heaps’ second season], and then we won it in ’15 a year earlier than we thought we would. In ’16 [when the Golden Tigers won a school-record 48 games], we were very deep and talented, but at the same time our guys had to put their egos aside and stay humble. They did that. In ’17, it was a coin flip. We were either really good or really average. Early in the year, we were really average. Then our guys started holding themselves to a higher standard. Accountability was a big key—not performing to par, but not accepting it. Things started to turn around right around spring break last year, and then we turned the corner and became a team that really went out and competed instead of just going through the motions. I think this team is ready to compete.”

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