For the first time since 2002, Benjamin Russell’s baseball team is in the quarterfinals. And for the first time in coach Richy Brooks’ 27-year tenure, the Wildcats will meet Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa on the diamond.
The Patriots (24-4) are going to be Benjamin Russell’s toughest tests so far in the Class 6A postseason, as they were ranked No. 2 in the final Alabama Sports Writers Association rankings. But at this point in the year, no one is going to be a slouch.
“I know they’re a good team,” Brooks said. “They’ve got a good tradition, and it’s a tough place to play. They’ll be our best challenge of the year, without question.”
Benjamin Russell will hit the road for Tuscaloosa for the best-of-three series which begins at 4:30 p.m. Friday. The if-necessary game is set for 1 p.m. Saturday.
Although Hillcrest is an unfamiliar opponent, the Wildcats do know a couple players to be on the lookout for. Brooks said Garrett McMillan and Kyle Chastine are two of the Patriots’ top pitchers, and Walt Bailey and Cade Atchison lead them at the plate.
“We know a little bit about them, but again, we’re mostly focusing on us,” Brooks said. “We got what information we need, but we’re not going overboard. We’re going to focus on how we play and how we handle going down there in a hostile environment.”
With 36 games under their belts, the Wildcats (25-11) feel like they have done just about everything they can to prepare for this quarterfinal battle. In addition to playing a tough schedule and eking out some big wins throughout their playoff runs so far, the Wildcats also took a long road trip this season in preparation for just this trip.
Benjamin Russell hit the road for Fort Payne, which is about 135 miles from Alexander City, earlier this season, and Hillcrest is about 120 miles away.
“Obviously this will be a really good team we’re playing, but we did as much as we could,” Brooks said. “We’ve put them in as best a situation as we can. We had a good schedule; we sent them on a road trip. We’ve done our part in getting ready; now it’s just a matter of going out and playing.”
Brooks said he used that same mentality when it came to practice this week. He’s shortened practice not only because of the grueling heat this week but also because there’s only but so much left to teach. He said the Wildcats continued to work on fielding groundballs and fly outs and got their swings in offensively, but there’s not a whole lot to change at this point.
One thing Brooks feels confident in is his well-rounded team.
“I told them this Monday: ‘You don’t know who the hero is going to be this week, but it’s gotta be somebody,’” Brooks said. “All the way back to Game 1 last week, Nick (McGhee) made a catch that would’ve scored a run, and Brett (Pitts) made a diving stop at short and we ended up throwing a guy out when he would’ve scored. In a 2-0 ballgame, somebody’s gotta be the hero.
“Wilson Hays was also phenomenal behind the plate. I can’t say enough about him. Those are the kinda things I look for. You can talk hitting all you want, but those things kept them from scoring. If the other team can’t score, they can’t win.”
BRHS should feel good about its offense as well. Since the postseason began, the Wildcats are hitting above .300 as a team and have four regular batters who are hitting above .350. Brock Elliott and Joe Young are both averaging .400, while Pitts (.368) and Huell Lumpkin (.353) are right behind. Ty Brown has been a huge boost despite having only four plate appearances. He turned those four at bats into a trio of hits and two RBIs.
On the mound, Brooks said Wednesday afternoon he still wasn’t sure who would start for what game. With the Wildcats changing up their rotation so much during the playoffs, Hillcrest could likely see any combination of Elliott, Cade Brooks, Pitts and Ryan Slaten as starters.