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Bulldogs end 20-year playoff drought with sweep of Vina

Few people are more familiar with the baseball tradition at Shoals Christian School than Clint Isbell, who played in two state finals with the Flame in 2005 and 2006 and then served as an assistant under former coach Jason Anderson on the SCS teams that brought home three straight Blue Maps from 2010-12.

At the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of baseball pedigree is Belgreen, where Isbell is currently in his second year as head coach. The last time the Bulldogs qualified for the playoffs was 1998—that is, until last week, when they wrapped up their first postseason berth in 20 years with a two-game sweep of Class 1A, Area 13 rival Vina.

“Our guys were excited,” said Isbell, who also coaches boys basketball at Belgreen and has guided the Bulldogs to back-to-back regional appearances in Hanceville. “Baseball has been one of those things where they had kind of gotten into the routine of not expecting as much, just doing it to pass the time. This group put in a lot of time and a lot of practice. They wanted more than to just go out there and play your set amount of games and then go home.

“They wanted to do something special.”

To Isbell’s point, baseball may be our national pastime, but the Bulldogs’ current players—especially their eight seniors, Payton Scott, Jake Taylor, Seth Taylor, Jacob Mayberry, Ashlee Britton, Eli Hiser, Mason Donahoe and Cameron Jarnigan—were no longer content with simply using the diamond every spring as a place to…well…pass the time between the end of basketball season and summer workouts. It was the commitment and determination of those eight seniors that led Isbell to believe this might actually be the year when Belgreen’s playoff drought finally ended.

“Those eight seniors, for the most part, have been playing baseball at Belgreen a long time, since junior high,” Isbell said. “They’ve put in a lot of work over the years, and I knew—with a senior-driven team—it could happen this year. A lot of those guys have been on the basketball floor with me as well, and they’re used to winning. They wanted baseball to have the same type of mentality, to learn how to win. They’ve done a great job this year of making that happen.”

The Bulldogs (9-10 overall through Sunday) swept Tharptown in area play but lost both games to No. 4 Hackleburg, the eventual area champion. They entered last week’s series with Vina needing to take two out of three to finish as runners-up. Isbell’s team ended the playoff drought in emphatic fashion, routing the Red Devils 23-4 last Tuesday at Belgreen and then riding a big first inning to a 13-2 win at Vina on Thursday in the clincher.

“We swung the bats really well,” said Isbell, whose team finished 4-2 in area play. “What it boiled down to, though, was our pitchers threw strikes and gave us a chance. If our pitchers give us a chance and we make the routine plays behind them, we’re gonna be pretty good. We’ve done a good job for the most part all year of swinging the bats and putting some pressure on opposing defenses. We swung it pretty well both days last week.”

Mayberry provided his usual spark in the leadoff spot last Tuesday in Belgreen’s 23-run outburst, going 2-for-2 with three walks and two RBIs. Donahoe, the team’s first baseman and three-hole hitter, went 2-for-4 and drove in two runs. Scott, who bats fifth, was 2-for-4 with a triple and four RBIs. Junior Gaven Taylor went 2-for-3 with three RBIs, and outfielder Kostner Bryant was 2-for-4 with a double and an RBI.

Seth Taylor, who bats second in the order, led the way in game two of the series on Thursday, going 3-for-4 with three RBIs in the 13-2 win. Donahoe had another big day, going 2-for-4 and driving in two runs. Cleanup man Jake Taylor was 2-for-3 with a pair of doubles and an RBI. Gaven Taylor went 2-for-3 with two doubles and four RBIs, and Scott was 2-for-3. Mayberry drove in two runs, and Bryant and Luke Henson each had one hit.

Seth Taylor picked up the win in Tuesday’s Game 1 rout, striking out six and allowing just one hit in 4.1 innings. Henson was dominant in relief, striking out four in 1.2 scoreless innings. Scott went the distance in Thursday’s playoff clincher, striking out eight and holding Vina to two hits in five innings.

Isbell said the strike-throwing Mayberry is typically the team’s go-to reliever. Designated hitter Britton and freshman catcher Koby Collins also play key roles in the everyday lineup.

It’s only fitting that the team waiting to welcome Belgreen back to postseason play after a two-decade absence is none other than Shoals Christian, which will host the Bulldogs in a first-round series starting this Friday at 4:30 p.m. in Florence. This Flame team may not be of the same vintage as the championship-caliber squads Isbell was a part of in the program’s heyday, but they did beat Covenant Christian last week to wrap up the Area 16 title.

“We’re gonna have to go in and play well and get after it,” said Isbell, who left SCS for a teaching job at Arab in the summer of 2012. “It’s gonna be fun. I played there, I coached there, and going back is always fun. It’ll be an exciting atmosphere. Shoals Christian does a great job, and they have a good tradition there. We just have to go in and play our game and not get overwhelmed by the situation and the atmosphere. As long as we’re able to settle in and play, I feel like we can have a chance.”

Isbell said his players are at least somewhat familiar with Shoals Christian’s recent storied history, but he doesn’t expect them to quake at the sight of those state championship banners on Friday.

“They’re aware of it,” Isbell said, “but they’ve really gotten into a good mindset, a good attitude this year. They know who Shoals Christian is and who they have been, but our guys also expect to go over there and compete. They don’t expect to go over there and just hand it to them because of their tradition. They believe we can compete with whoever we play, with the main goal of trying to get a win.”

The Bulldogs have gotten more wins than usual this year, and Isbell credits first-year assistant coach Nathan Vincent—a former Russellville standout—with helping the program take significant steps forward.

“He’s been outstanding,” Isbell said of Vincent, who graduated from RHS in 2011 before playing college baseball at Wallace-Hanceville and UAB. “He knows the game really well, and he does a good of relating to the kids. The kids enjoy him. They’ve really taken to him this year. He does a great job with our junior high program. He’s the head jayvee coach, and we run our practices together. We don’t separate varsity and jayvee.

“I know he’s helped out at Russellville in the past, and he’s doing a great job here. He’s learning a lot toward becoming a head coach one day. He’s a guy I trust putting the kids out there with. He’s gonna teach them the right things, the correct way to do things, and on top of that he’s a high-character guy. I think a lot of him.”

Isbell has many fond memories of Shoals Christian’s baseball facility, none moreso than the third and deciding game of a second-round series with Hackleburg in 2006, when he delivered a walk-off RBI single to break up a tie game and send the Flame to the state quarterfinals. Those are precisely the kind of memories that can only be made in the do-or-die, high-stakes environment of the playoffs, and the Bulldogs will have a long-awaited opportunity to make a few of their own this weekend.

“These guys are very excited about it,” Isbell said. “They’ll always be known as the team that broke the twenty-year drought. People will remember that, and it’ll be something to talk about for a long time. They really wanted to make the playoffs this year, and they got the job done. It means a lot to them.”

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