There’s one for every year they’re reached the Alabama High School Athletic Association state baseball playoffs — with a special inscription, indicating seasons in which they the won area championship along the way.
They’ve reached the postseason in eight of the past 10 seasons, capturing area crowns in six of those seasons, including a Class 4A, Area 9 title this year. Their run rivals that of the school’s football team, which reached the playoffs nine years in a row prior to 2008 and 2009.
But there’s something about Cleburne County’s success on the diamond the pennants don’t reveal. Despite, the Tigers’ seemingly routine trips to play beyond the regular season, they’ve yet to be able to get past the second round during the tenure of 12th-year coach Vaughn Lee.
It’s something they plan on changing today.
After sweeping St. Clair County, winning 11-1 and 12-0 in a best-of-three first-round series a week ago, the Tigers will have yet another shot to go where no team before this has gone. Cleburne County (22-9) hosts No. 9 Oneonta (20-2) with a trip to the state quarterfinals on the line. The first pitch of the doubleheader is at 5 p.m. with Game 2 tentatively scheduled for 7 p.m. If necessary, Game 3 will be played Saturday at 2 p.m.
“We really want it, especially the seniors,” shortstop Taylor Jones said. “We want to be the first team to get beyond the second round.”
The Tigers looked poised to make a deep run into the postseason last year with a roster that included Class 4A Player and Pitcher of the Year C.C. Watson, now at Mississippi State, and catcher Levi Davis, who signed with Bevill State Community College. However, Saks, a team they’d beaten by virtue of the 10-run mercy rule twice in the regular season, upset them at home, sweeping them. The Wildcats won Game 2 17-16 after the Tigers led by five runs going into the game’s final half-inning.
Instead of putting it behind them, the Tigers have used that letdown as inspiration to put in extra work and put up big numbers this season. Lee said he typically gives his team Wednesdays off but this year’s bunch, one of the more mature teams collectively he’s had in his tenure as coach, told him they didn’t want any time off and took to the field.
“I haven’t had to repeat myself,” Lee said. “With some teams, you have to repeat yourself over and over to get them to do what’s required of them. This group comes out. They get their work in and they know what they want to do. I haven’t had to give them any big speeches. They’re motivated. They understand the game. This is one of the best teams I’ve had as far as preparing themselves to play.”
In Heflin, a place where players graduate but the winning tradition never does, the Tigers knew they’d have what it takes to reach this point again, coming into the season. They returned a blend of youth and experience, with a roster that includes three sophomores, three juniors and three seniors.
Senior Matthew Norton has taken over as ace of a pitching staff that runs nine-deep that has a team ERA of 3.66 and gives up just 1.66 runs per game. Norton is 7-1 and gives up just 1.66 runs per game followed by Michael Barber (3.27) and Alex Lee (3.45). Sophomore Noah Cash has filled in nicely at catcher. Alex Lee also leads the Tigers at the plate, batting .510, including 46 RBIs, six home runs and two doubles.
“Pitching is going to be very important in this game,” Norton said. “Seven of their nine hitters bat over .400 so we’re really going to have to locate pitches, especially with their 3-4-5 hitters.
The Tigers’ team batting average is actually higher — at .343 — than it was last year despite losing two hitters who hit over .450 in Watson and Davis. Centerfielder Benton Cooley has also been a major contributor — transitioning into full-time work after serving as a designated hitter much of last year. Cooley is batting .436 with three home runs.
“We’ve played a pretty tough schedule and what’s happened is that that we’ve got a team that’s peaking in the playoffs. ” Lee said.
Now, all they need to do is get over the hump.
Nick Birdsong covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 235-3575.