SYLACAUGA -- The road to Montgomery for Sylacauga High School’s baseball team goes through its home field.
For the Aggies to advance to the Class 5A state finals, they’ll have to defeat Briarwood Christian in a best-of-three semifinal playoff series that opens with a doubleheader Friday at 11 a.m. If the teams split, an if-necessary game will be played Saturday.
“They’re going to be probably one of the most sound and fundamental teams that we’re going to see,” Sylacauga head coach Jeff Bell said. “They play really good defense. They’re going to put a lot of balls in play, and that’s going to put a premium on defense. They’re always going to have good pitchers. They’re a pretty well-rounded team.”
Sylacauga battled it’s way through Ramsay (5-0, 17-0), No. 1-ranked St. Paul’s (4-3, 7-0) and Bibb County (2-4, 7-3, 6-5). Each series provided the Aggies with a different test, and the home series against the Choctaws proved to be the most challenging to date.
“Once the playoffs start, your goal is to survive and advance,” Bell said. “We’ve sort of lived by that motto this playoff season. That’s what the Bibb County series was -- it was just about survival.”
Despite some chippy plays against Bibb County where some Aggies came away banged up, Bell said his team is in good shape going into Friday's series against the Lions.
“Most of those were just sort of minor nicks,” he said. “I think Zach (Dew) sprained an ankle, but it was pretty mild. I think Andrew (Schmidt) took a knee into his side, so he was just sore.
“We were pretty lucky that those weren’t more severe, and a lot of our arm issues where we’ve sort of built up stamina along the way, most of those guys are near full health. We’re pretty healthy despite as grueling a weekend as it was against Bibb County.”
The Aggies (23-8) faced the Lions (17-14) twice in 2018 in area play and lost both games 8-7 and 10-1.
Bell expressed confidence in his pitching, hitting and defense.
“I like our pitching staff,” he said. “We’ve got ones we rely on pretty heavily, like Tyler (Thompson), and I think (Cole) Porch pitched a great game in Game 3 (against Bibb County) under all that pressure. Luke (Vincent) and Grant (Walker) have pitched good, and Schmidt, when he’s been in there, has been good.
“All throughout the order, anybody can have a big game and win it for us. If we clean up our defense and play like we’ve played throughout the year, I like our defense a lot. I really think we’re in pretty good shape in all three phases.”
While Bell said he doesn’t look ahead during the season, he said he thought plenty during the preseason about what would happen if the Aggies made it to this point in the playoffs.
“It’s constantly on my mind during the offseason and preseason,” he said. “You sort of try to envision what it’s going to feel like, what the nerves are going to feel like and what the venue is going to feel like.
“I have several close friends of mine who have been to (the state finals) and even won it. I always ask them, ‘What does it feel like getting that last out?’
“It would be important for us to get there, especially having to overcome a good Briarwood team, but I don’t think my team or I would be satisfied about just getting there. I’m sure it would be a fun experience, but if we’re fortunate enough to get there, we’re going to want to come back with the winning trophy.”
He added the environment will likely be intense again as the host team.
“It’s going to be tough to live up to the crowd and the excitement from the Bibb County series, but I know there’s a long history with Sylacauga and Briarwood,” Bell said. “With the two schools being fairly close together, I expect fairly similar numbers and level of enthusiasm from the crowd, much like last week.”