By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
SPRINGFIELD — Different dugouts told different stories Friday night about a baseball series that means so much to different communities.
South Effingham players chest bumped and gathered for photos with a scoreboard in the background that told an unbiased story as Effingham County players slowly began the task of postgame cleanup.
“My first year, three years ago, they swept us and this just shows how far we’ve come in three years,” said SEHS coach Todd Eubanks after the Mustangs’ 9-1 win completed a three-game sweep and turned the table on the Rebels. “We came in, the kids bought in, and we steadied the program to the point where this is where we’re at now.”
SEHS (20-6, 11-4 Region 2-AAAAAA) elevated into a three-way tie for first place in the region with Glynn Academy and Richmond Hill entering the final week of the regular season.
The Rebels (13-12, 6-9) need to draw a pair of threes — their own three-game sweep of upcoming foe Brunswick and some help with a Glynn Academy three-game sweep of Statesboro — to claim the region’s fourth and final state tournament slot.
“The mark of a good player, a good athlete or just a good man is what do you do when you get knocked down?” ECHS coach Chris Johnson said. “Do you get up, brush yourself off and say I’m going again, or do you tuck your tail and run. I believe our kids are going to brush themselves off and try to win three baseball games next week.”
SEHS wouldn’t be a bad model for the Rebels to emulate. The Mustangs lost three straight times to Glynn Academy to open region play. To make matters worse, they saw a six-run lead disappear in the seventh inning of Game 3 when the Terrors produced a nearly unbelievable 13 runs.
Good sailors don’t learn in calm seas, an SEHS assistant told the team.
The Mustangs overcame the rough sea and sailed to 14 wins in their next 15 games.
Against ECHS, South capitalized on its scoring opportunities. In the decisive fourth inning of Game 3, four Mustangs walked and another was hit by a pitch. Each scored and SEHS had a five-run inning without hitting the ball out of the infield. A 2-1 game suddenly ballooned to 7-1.
A wild pitch after a third strike was the catalyst for the only two runs in the Mustangs’ 2-0 win in Game 1.
Senior Nick Duke picked up two victories in the series — in relief in Game 2 and with a gritty, complete-game outing two days later in Game 3.
No doubt, the Rebels will shake their heads collectively for lost opportunities. And it all started in the first inning of the first game. ECHS had three hits in the inning and didn’t get a runner past second base. The Rebels had five hits in the fourth inning of Game 2 and scored just one run. They had a 9-7 advantage in hits in Game 3 and lost 9-1.
“It eats my guts out. They’re a region foe but they’re also a rival and you want to play your very best against those guys,” Johnson said. “Game 1 and Game 2, I thought we played hard and had some chances and could have won those games if we just successfully did a few things we work on all the time, but (Game 3) we weren’t the same team.
“I don’t think I have unrealistic expectations. I do think we have a good baseball team and they play hard. We have to find a way to redirect ourselves where we were against Glynn (winning 2 of 3) and some of those folks.”
For South, it’s on to a key showdown with Richmond Hill.
“We’ve won 20 games, qualified for state and we’re playing for a chance at first place in the region in our first year of 6A,” Eubanks said. “It’s a nice feeling. I feel blessed. We’re still playing for something when a lot of people aren’t.