By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
SAVANNAH — The next step was the first step for South Effingham and Effingham County baseball teams.
The Mustangs have a strong returning nucleus whose next step is to improve on an Elite Eight showing at the Class AAAAAA state baseball tournament last spring.
The Rebels’ next step is advancing to postseason play after a year hiatus and taking things from there.
No dream is too big in February when teams take their first steps in the 2022 season.
SEHS swung into action Feb. 15 with a 5-2 win over Savannah Country Day. ECHS opened its season the next day with a 12-5 loss at Islands High School in Savannah.
“Baseball is the renewal of another year,” Mustangs coach Todd Eubanks said. “To me, baseball is still the national pastime, maybe not what it used to be, but it still brings people together. It’s a game everyone can play. Size, color, creed, it doesn’t matter, everyone can be a part.”
A lot can be said from first impressions. Eubanks watched his team battle back from a one-run deficit for four runs in the sixth inning against SCD, a 23-win team last spring.
Nick “Tiny” Milbrandt, last season’s Region 2-AAAAAA Pitcher of the Year, struck out seven in four innings to keep the game close.
Avery Sikes, who wasn’t relied on offensively a year ago, had a game-tying hit and Ohio University-bound Noah Hollis, who had the big home run in Game 3 to beat Lee County, kept on rolling with a two-run double to key the four-run uprising.
And Maddox Shiell looked comfortable in the closer’s role with three strikeouts to notch the save.
“Our kids were resilient and they should be by now. They weren’t going to die and went out and did it,” Eubanks said.
ECHS had its opener go in a different direction, although Matthew Ford gave the Rebels a good start by belting a home run over the center-field fence on the first pitch he saw.
ECHS led 4-2 heading into the sixth inning before Islands batted around for 10 runs.
“It’s early, you know when the weather’s cold this happens, but it’s good to get started,” said Rebels’ first-year coach Shane Ramsey. “We still have some things to work on.”
The work continued over the weekend and both ECHS and SEHS challenged themselves with tough competition.
On Saturday, the Rebels dropped two games to third-ranked Pope High School, a semifinalist at state last season, 8-4 and 18-4.
The Mustangs went South to play in the 22nd annual Baseball at the Beach Classic in Brunswick. They defeated sixth-ranked River Ridge, a 27-win team a year ago, 7-3, on Friday night.
The next day, SEHS lost to Calhoun 9-4 before blanking Class AAAAAAA West Forsyth 1-0.
This Saturday, the Mustangs will host Woodstock, another tough test against a team that won 27 games last year.
It’s a fan-friendly start of the high school baseball season. Eubanks says the start of the baseball season is always enjoyable.
“For me, Christmas comes in February,” he said.