Southside faces Spanish Fort for 5A state championship
Thu. May 17, 2012 at 10:03 p.m. | By Andrew Schmidt Sports Writer
Southside coach Blake Bone and the Panthers go after the school’s second Class 5A state championship beginning today at Patterson Field in Montgomery. (Photo by Dave Hyatt | Gadsden Times | File)
When the Southside Panthers and Spanish Fort Toros hit the field back in January for their first full-squad practices of the 2012 baseball season, they always hoped that this day would come.
Well, it’s here.
Nearly five months later, the Class 5A state championship best-of-three series will get under way with Game 1 beginning at 4 p.m. at Montgomery’s Paterson Field.
“I think our guys are just anxious to get on the field now,” Southside coach Blake Bone said Thursday. “The preparation is over now, and it’s time to play.”
For Southside, the trip to Montgomery represents a chance for the Panthers (27-15) to win the school’s second state title. The other one came in 2001.
It’s been an unlikely run for the Panthers, who entered the midway point of the season with a losing record before righting the ship heading into area play and carrying that momentum into the postseason.
Spanish Fort (35-8), on the other hand, is becoming old hat at this routine. The third-ranked Toros are aiming for their third straight baseball state championship. Although just three starters returned from last year’s championship team, Spanish Fort managed to navigate its way to the title series yet again.
“We kind of thought we would have a nice team coming back,” Spanish Fort coach Tommy Walker said. “We thought we had some good players that could replace some of the guys that left, but you never know how guys are going to react when it’s their turn. ... It would be a little on the arrogant side for me to say, ‘Yeah, I thought we would be back in the finals again.’ We just thought we would be better than everybody thought we would be.”
The Toros have a trio of talented starting pitchers in Jess McCord, Heith Brown and Will Luft. McCord, a sophomore who is likely to start for Spanish Fort when the series moves to Riverwalk Stadium for Game 2 on Saturday, is 10-1 on the season with a 1.31 ERA. He has tossed three shutouts and struck out 97 in 75 innings of work.
Brown, a senior and the only lefty in the trio, is 7-2 with a 2.57 ERA and probably will start today’s opening game of the series. He has 49 strikeotus in 57 innings pitched. Luft also is a sophomore and has been the Toros’ Game 3 starter throughout the playoffs. He is 5-0 on the year with a 2.21 ERA and has two playoff wins — one over St. Paul’s in round one and another against Russell County in the quarterfinals.
“We’ve pitched it well and played defense well all year,” Walker said. “If you can’t pitch and play defense, you’re going to be in trouble. And that’s what we’ve done all year. ... Our pitching has really been outstanding.”
Southside will counter on the mound with a pair of clearly defined starters in junior right-handers Alex Pondick and Andrew Fuhrman. Pondick is the Panthers’ likely opening-game starter, while Fuhrman should take the hill in Game 2.
For the season, Pondick is 8-2 with a 2.68 ERA. He has 83 strikeouts in 781⁄3 innings of work, and opponents are batting just .213 against him. Fuhrman is 7-3 with a 1.69 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 62 innings. Opponents are hitting .185 against him.
“You can’t say enough about out starting pitching,” Bone said. “Those guys, Pondick and Fuhrman, have really carried us in the playoffs. They’re nothing that’s going to overpower you, but they throw three pitches for a strike and compete and give you a chance to win.”
The Panthers’ third starter, if one becomes necessary, is less defined than the Toros. In the one series that went to a third game this postseason — in the second round against Walker — Southside used sophomore lefty Drew Mullinax and freshman righty Brock love in combination to get the win. Bone also said Jesse Fry could be an option to start a third game.
“Those guys have thrown during the year and made improvement and made strides,” Bone said. “We trust if we have to put them in the game. ... Having those guys pitch a lot during the year, we built that trust, and we can put anybody out there and have confidence in what they’re going to do.”
At the plate, both coaches would describe their teams as solid all the way through the order, but neither has a huge power threat.
McCord, who plays third base when not pitching, is Spanish Fort’s top hitter, carrying a .365 average and 29 RBI into the finals. Catcher Shane English bats .339 and has 23 RBI. Middle infielder Andrew Ferrell is batting .330 with 17 RBI and has stolen 14 bases on the season.
“They’re a well-coached team with Tommy at the helm,” Bone said of the Toros. “They do the little things to win and play the game the right way from what I’ve heard. They know that they belong (in the finals) having been there before. It makes it an easier adjustment for them.”
For Southside, Fuhrman, who also plays shortstop and bats leadoff, is hitting .415 with 21 RBI and a team-high 34 runs scored. Right fielder Braxton Light bats second and sports a .386 average with 21 RBI and 28 runs scored. First baseman and No. 3 hitter Caleb Butler is the team’s top run producer, having knocked in 37 runs and scored 29 times to go with his .358 batting average.
Taylor Snow, Mullinax and Blake Devine also are each batting over .320 for the Panthers. Devine brings an added element of speed to the field, having swiped a team-high 22 bases and scored 32 runs, second-best behind Fuhrman.
“I think a lot of people would describe us as scrappy,” Bone said. “I think that’s a term that would describe us well. We’re not going to do anything flashy. ... We’re going to come out there and compete and fight and do whatever it takes to win. Guys don’t have a lot of pride. Their pride and egos don’t get in the way when you ask them to do certain things, and I think that’s big.
“We’re not going to quit. We’re going to fight you to the end, win or lose, and leave it on the field.”