It’s a baseball tradition for players to tip their cap to cheering fans as they leave the field. This time around, the caps should be tipped to the players and the coaches of the South Effingham Mustangs.
The Mustangs made the Class AAA state semifinals for the third time in four years, though the Columbus Blue Devils ended their season and their hopes of a shot at the state championship series. Along the way, the Mustangs lived the adage that adversity doesn’t build character but it reveals character.
South Effingham has become one of AAA’s premier programs, no small feat considering the likes of Gainesville, Cartersville and Columbus are also in AAA. When this season began, the Mustangs already had graduated a deep senior class that had been to two Final Fours in three years.
Even before the first pitch of the season, the Mustangs were faced an uphill climb. Senior first baseman Matt Tufts had to have an emergency appendectomy and senior pitcher Ryan Cole was still recovering from elbow reconstruction surgery, commonly referred to as “Tommy John” surgery. Sophomore Patrick Styblo also spent most of the season recuperating from shoulder surgery. Then, only a few games into the season, senior right fielder Paul Cheeks was sidelined with a torn quadriceps. In all, six Mustangs missed at least the start of the season and most had to sit out the majority of the campaign.
That forced coach Tony Kirkland and his staff to plug some younger kids that may not have played as much under normal circumstances into the lineup.
Halfway through the season, the Mustangs were around .500 and about to commence the Region 3-AAA season. From that point, they took off, losing just twice in the region and winning the title as Cole returned to throw a complete-game shutout.
When the state playoffs began, the Mustangs finally had their full roster available and they saved their best for last, with dramatic wins over Shaw in the first round, a sweep of West Laurens that ended in thrilling fashion and a hard-fought victory over Riverwood that went the distance.
Columbus ended South Effingham’s run — it was the fifth time this year a Columbus High team had ended a South Effingham team’s campaign in the state playoffs — but the Mustangs displayed the kind of class and resilience that should make their fans proud and it’s a credit to the coaches and the entire roster that they were able to accomplish so much this season.