Richy Brooks has been in the business a long time.
He’s been the Benjamin Russell head baseball coach for 27 years and just completed his 30th overall year coaching baseball. But it’s not every year he’s turned his team around to quite this extreme.
In 2018, the Wildcats didn’t even make the postseason. But in 2019, they stormed back and advanced all the way to the Class 6A quarterfinals before bowing out. Because of that turnaround, Brooks is the 2019 Outlook Baseball Coach of the Year.
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“When you get through a year where you don’t make it — and we had an opportunity going into the last week and we failed — you look at why did you fail,” Brooks said. “We failed because we didn’t play defense or pitch as well as we should have.”
So those were the two main focuses for the Wildcats during the offseason.
Usually during fall workouts, Brooks allowed the guys to do a lot of hitting during 5-on-1s. He said it’s easy to get players out to hit. However, last fall, the Wildcats didn’t any do any hitting at all.
“Everything was defense, throwing and pitching,” Brooks said. “We worked on our pitchers becoming better, learning to turn double plays and that kind of thing. And we didn’t make it mandatory.”
Brooks said he can’t take much of the credit. Instead, that turnaround and that success in 2019 was due to the players.
“That’s the most important thing is we had a group — and it was a core group of people that if they weren’t playing football, they were there in the fall,” Brooks said. “We didn’t ask anybody to come. But the core group did it. They put the time in and put the work in. And that’s the thing about leadership; I tell the kids all the time, ‘You don’t have to be vocal to be a leader. I do enough hollering; I need you to be a doer.’”
What was especially impressive to Brooks was how he could rely on different players at different times of the year. It wasn’t just one or two stars who made the team go but it was about different guys getting hot at different times. That translated into success across the board.
There were a few guys, like Huell Lumpkin and Nick McGhee, who Brooks maybe didn’t expect to be starters at the beginning of the season but they forced his hand with how well they performed.
There were several highlights to the season: Advancing to the first quarterfinals since 2004, going on an eight-game win streak and storming back to defeat Wetumpka in the first round of the postseason were just a few.
But there’s one game in particular Brooks pointed to that was truly a turning point.
Just after that eight-game streak was broken, Benjamin Russell went down to play Auburn on the road. The Tigers were at the time one of the top-ranked teams in Class 7A and BRHS was still waiting to crack the top 10 in 6A.
The Wildcats quickly got their backs up against a wall, going down 3-0 by the end of the third inning. Slowly but surely, though, BRHS climbed back. It scored a run in each the fifth, sixth and seventh innings to push it to extra frames.
Benjamin Russell then exploded for three runs in the top of the ninth to take down the Tigers.
“I think confidence-wise, that’s when we said, ‘Hey, we’re onto something here,’” Brooks said. “We had already played Smiths Station, which was the No. 1 team in 7A, and they beat us 7-2, 7-2 but when we got through playing, we felt OK. We felt like we could’ve played with them. Then we knew Auburn was going to be good — the defending state champion in 7A — and to go down there and beat them in extra innings was big.”
Although Benjamin Russell will graduate some key pieces this year, the Wildcats also return a lot and with Brooks at the helm, there’s no telling what they’ll be able to accomplish next season.