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Four-gone conclusion: Russellville returns to Montgomery with semifinal sweep

RUSSELLVILLE - The first curveball Jeff Lloyd saw on Friday afternoon was thrown at him by his own head coach, Chris Heaps.

Prior to the start of Russellville’s best-of-three series with Mortimer Jordan in the Class 5A semifinals, Lloyd, a 6’2, 205-pound senior and three-year member of the varsity baseball team, had gone through his usual pre-game routine of playing catch in the outfield and taking groundballs with the Golden Tigers’ other first basemen. Lloyd did not expect to start Game 1, and indeed his name was not on the initial lineup card Heaps sent to the press box for the series opener.

But Heaps noticed during those pre-game infield drills that junior Caden Parker, slated to start at first, wasn’t moving around too well. Parker, on a 10-for-24 tear through the first three rounds of the playoffs that had seen him rise all the way to the cleanup spot, has been dealing with a sore right knee lately, one that required a cortisone injection on Friday morning. Ordinarily, Parker would have been at short with Rudy Fernandez on the mound (as he was for Game 1), but Heaps was hopeful that his impaired mobility would be less of an issue at first base.

Watching Parker take groundballs, however, the head coach came to a realization.

“He was laboring a bit,” Heaps said. “He wasn’t fielding balls cleanly. I said to myself, ‘I’m not gonna be able to play him.’ I had to scratch him.”

As soon as Heaps and his players returned to the dugout for pre-game introductions, he hurriedly filled out a new lineup card and made a beeline for Lloyd.

“I was sitting there,” Lloyd said, “and he came over to me and said, ‘You’re at first.’ It was probably two or three minutes before we went out on the field [for the national anthem]. It was last-minute, but I had prepared for it.”

Lloyd had been a semi-regular for Russellville during the season, collecting 86 plate appearances, but only seven of those had come in the playoffs, and he hadn’t started any of the team’s first eight postseason games. Earlier in the year, Heaps and Lloyd had a conversation that thousands of coaches and players have had thousands of times since organized sports became a thing. The topic?

Playing time.

“Jeff and I had…not an altercation, but a discussion,” said Heaps, now in his sixth year at RHS. “He wasn’t happy with the playing time he was getting. I told him he had two choices—he could stay positive and have a good attitude about it, or he could move on. Those were his two options, and I told him to take that night and think about what he wanted to do.

“He came back to me the next day, and he said, ‘Coach, from now on, whatever you decide, I’m not gonna bring any negative energy.’ He said he was gonna be positive, and he has been.”

A first-inning at bat in Friday's Game 1 seemed like a long shot for Lloyd, who was batting in the No. 8 spot. Then again, with the way the Golden Tigers have been swinging the bats in these playoffs [they were batting .360 as a team and averaging 9.8 runs per game in the postseason entering Friday], perhaps the odds weren’t so slim after all. The bottom of the first began with a single by Noah Gist and a walk to Fernandez, and then senior Landon Ezzell continued his monster playoff run with a three-run homer to left off Mortimer Jordan starter Chas Austin to give Russellville an early 3-0 lead.

Austin retired the next two batters, but back-to-back hits by Devin Buckhalter and Hunter Briles brought Lloyd to the plate with two on and two out. The big lefty had homered twice in his postseason career, once last year in the first round against these same Blue Devils and again two weeks ago in a Game 3 rout of Lee-Huntsville, but both of those blasts came when the outcome was no longer in doubt. This was his best chance in a while to truly impact a critical game, and he wasn’t about to miss it.

Not three times, any way.

“I swung through the first two pitches,” Lloyd said. “They weren’t as slow as I expected them to be. After that, I was just trying to put a good swing on it and hit it hard somewhere.”

Ahead of Lloyd 0-and-2, Austin threw him a curveball down—at the knees or below—but right over the plate. Lloyd jumped all over it, hammering it over the fence in right-center for Russellville’s second three-run homer of the inning. Eight batters in, the Golden Tigers were already up 6-0 and well on their way to drawing first blood with a 12-4 win.

“Coach made a good decision,” Parker said later on Friday night after striking out a season-high nine batters in six innings of two-hit ball in a 7-0 Game 2 win that sent Russellville (30-15) to Montgomery for a fourth consecutive season. “I was able to push off [the pitching rubber] without any problem, but I couldn’t really run. It would have been hard for me to play in Game 1. Then Jeff comes up in the first inning, and WHAM—a bomb. It was great.”

Lloyd now has three career home runs at the varsity level—all in the postseason, all in Russellville victories and none more important than Friday’s tone-setting blast.

“I’m proud of him. He played well tonight,” Heaps said of Lloyd, who drove in another run with a bases-loaded walk in the sixth inning of Game 1 and then came off the bench to smash an opposite-field double to deep left-center in the seventh inning of Game 2. “Having a bat like his to come off the bench is big for us. The other night at Lee, a home run. Tonight, another home run. And he hit the snot out of that double in Game 2.”

Russellville’s roster is filled with guys like Lloyd who have earned a ring or two during the team’s current run of three consecutive state titles but are playing far more meaningful roles in the quest for number four. Fernandez, who improved to 7-2 on the mound with five solid innings in Friday’s opener, has been the Golden Tigers’ most consistent hitter from start to finish this season, batting .347 with six homers and 35 RBIs. Gist, who had a productive season in 2017 as junior but played only sporadically once the playoffs began, has been a mainstay in the leadoff spot as a senior, leading the team in both walks (33) and runs scored (38) while reaching base at a .443 clip.

“Noah has been doing a great job setting the table for us,” Heaps said of Gist, who went 3-for-5 in Friday’s first game and is now batting an even .400 (12-for-30) in the playoffs with at least one hit in nine out of ten games. “Every time he comes up, it’s barrel, barrel, barrel. He hit the ball hard several times in Game 1.”

Briles, a junior, has blossomed this season as well, transforming from a defense-only catcher to a legitimate two-way contributor who is just as productive at the plate as he is valuable behind it. With three more hits in Friday’s doubleheader (including a key two-out RBI single off Blue Devil ace Dalton Hall in a four-run first inning in Game 2), Briles is now batting .419 (13-for-31) in ten playoff games and .312 on the season as a whole.

“I think we just have better focus,” Briles said of both his and the team’s steady late-season improvement at the plate. “We’re not chasing as much, and we’re swinging at better pitches.”

Senior second baseman Brock Malone, whose 24 at bats as a junior in 2017 all came during the regular season, has been remarkably reliable with the glove this year while also producing in the middle of the order. He collected four hits in Friday’s sweep, raising his playoff average to .364 and his season average to .296 with six doubles and 28 RBIs. Buckhalter, who got just three plate appearances last year as a sophomore while contributing almost exclusively as a courtesy runner, has had a big season at the plate, batting .335 with 43 hits (third-most on the team), 26 RBIs, 28 runs and 15 stolen bases.

Then there’s Parker, whose only appearance in a varsity game last season consisted of two innings of relief work on the mound. He’s been a pleasant surprise and then some at the plate, batting .325 and ranking second on the team with a .456 OBP and 12 doubles. His most valuable contributions, however, have come on the mound, where Friday’s Game 2 gem improved his season record to 8-2 with a 2.30 ERA. Parker has gone 3-0 in his first three career playoff starts, out-pitching a pair of aces (Lee lefty Ludany Rodriguez in round two and the hard-throwing Hall on Friday) and winning a do-or-die game against Springville in last week’s quarterfinals.

“Caden has really shown a lot of competitive greatness,” Heaps said on Friday night, breaking out a superlative he uses in only the rarest of circumstances. “Being at your best when your best is needed—that’s competitive greatness. Caden did that for us tonight, and he did it on a bum knee.”

Bum knee or not, Briles knew after warming up Parker in the bullpen prior to Game 2 that his classmate was about to do something special.

“No doubt. He was throwing really well,” Briles said, “and that usually carries over a lot into the game. His location was great, and we were able to mix it up. He’s able to change things up with his fastball. He can throw it at 78 [miles per hour], and he can throw it at 82. That keeps guys off balance."

Parker painted the outside corner with that fastball all night, holding the Blue Devils (31-14) hitless until sophomore DH Boo Prisoc grounded a single up the middle with two outs in the bottom of the fifth. After hitting a batter and giving up a single to Joseph Swann to start the bottom of the seventh, Parker gave way to reliever Jaret Ward, yet another player who has flourished this season in an expanded role. Ward threw just 5.1 innings last season as a junior, but he leads the pitching staff this year with 18 appearances, 17 of which have come in relief. The senior sidearmer is 5-2 with a 2.12 ERA and just 29 hits allowed in 42.2 innings.

Ward, who picked up the win in Monday’s decisive Game 3 against Springville in the quarterfinals, worked out of a bases-loaded, nobody-out jam after relieving Parker on Friday, preserving the shutout and sealing Russellville’s fourth straight trip to the state finals. In many ways, this one may be the most satisfying of the bunch, given that few observers expected the Golden Tigers to make it back to Montgomery following the departure last May of five college-bound senior players, a group headlined by current Auburn Tigers and all-time Russellville greats Cody Greenhill and Judd Ward.

“This one means a lot, because we showed everybody we could do it even without guys like Cody and Judd,” said Lloyd, one of the team’s 11 seniors. “Those guys were great players, but this one is special because these are the guys I’ve been playing with since I was little. I’ve been playing with them my whole life.”

That group includes guys like Ezzell, who is putting together a postseason performance for the ages to wrap up his four-year varsity career. His first-inning blast in Friday’s Game 1 was his fourth home run of these playoffs, to go along with a .441 average and a staggering 23 RBIs in ten games.

“He is carrying this team,” Heaps said Friday of Ezzell, who is now batting .298 on the year with nine home runs, 14 doubles and 43 RBIs in 45 games. “He’s our glue guy. He’s the straw that stirs the drink.”

Ezzell and fellow varsity veterans Houston Kitterman (.348 average this season with three homers, 35 runs scored and a team-best .468 OBP) and Tom Barkley Scott (nine extra-base hits, including three homers, with 20 walks, 24 RBIs and 32 runs scored) have all been vitally important to this year’s success—just as they were a year ago. Guys like Parker, Fernandez, Malone, Buckhalter, Briles, Lloyd and Ward have now joined them as key cogs on a team bound for Montgomery. This time, they’re not just along for the ride.

“Going to Montgomery last year was great,” Parker said on Friday, “but it’s even more memorable when you’re a bigger part of the team. That makes it more fun, more special.”

Winning a fourth consecutive state championship would really be fun and special—not to mention unprecedented and historical. Russellville is one of only three programs (along with Hartselle from 1990-92 and Spanish Fort from 2010-12) to win three straight titles in Class 5A; no 5A team has ever won four in a row. The Golden Tigers will have a chance to do that next week in Montgomery as they lock horns for a third straight year with Faith Academy in a best-of-three series beginning on Thursday at 4 p.m. at Paterson Field.

Heaps, seeking his eighth state championship as either a player, assistant coach or head coach, was asked on Friday night how this particular team was able to get back to Montgomery despite the loss of no fewer than a dozen players to the college ranks since this run started back in 2015. Naturally, he answered with one of his favorite quotes [it’s a long list], this one from the late, great martial artist Bruce Lee.

“He once said, ‘Fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks one time. Fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.’ This team has worked relentlessly on the little things—bunting, hit-and-running, runners in scoring position, dirt-balls, turning double plays, all that stuff. We take 25 minutes of rapid-fire groundballs every day. Another thing is, around the time we went to the beach [for a tournament in late March], our coaches stopped throwing BP to our guys in a way that made them comfortable. We started moving the ball around and showing them the kinds of things they're gonna see in a game. Because when you get in a big playoff game, it's not about being comfortable; it's about how you respond when you get uncomfortable.

“We have practiced that one kick 10,000 times. And we’re pretty confident about it.”

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