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Defense betrays Mustangs, dropping them to No. 4 seed
Noah Hollis
Mustangs shortstop Noah Hollis sets to fire the ball to first base after fielding a grounder against the Wildcats on Friday. Shortstop Carson Spendiff is in the background. - photo by Mark Lastinger/staff

By Donald Heath

Special for the Effingham Herald

GUYTON – South Effingham will be traveling to Atlanta on Wednesday to play Westlake in the first round of the Class AAAAAAbaseball tournament.

Showing up shouldn’t be a concern. The question is, “How fast can the Mustangs baseball team do a u-turn?”

South (20-10) limps into the playoffs after suffering a demoralizing three-game sweep to Richmond Hill to end the regular season. Seven errors in Game 3 led to seven unearned runs and a 7-6 loss on Senior Night.

After starting the week in a four-way tie for first place in the region standings, SEHS dropped the first two games to the Wildcats 7-3 and 6-0.

It meant a slide from first to fourth and now a first-round, best-of-three matchup with the Region 4 champion Lions who averaged more than 10 runs a game during the regular season while posting a 23-4 record.

SEHS and Westlake will play a doubleheader Wednesday with a third game, if necessary, Thursday.

“Mentally, we have to realize school’s not out,” Mustangs coach Todd Eubanks said. “We’ve been working all year long to get to this point. We’re one of 32 teams in the playoffs and it’s a privilege to do this. Now we need to go play Mustang baseball.”

The Mustang baseball Eubanks talks about is a brand of baseball that knocked off Class AAAAAA power River Ridge and Class AAAAAAA toughie Woodstock before region play this season.

It’s the brand of baseball that took SEHS to the Elite Eight at state last year and kept the Mustangs ranked in the top 10 for most of this year.

“We have to make routine (plays be) routine and we’re not doing that,” Eubanks said. “We have to focus on finishing what we started.”

All seven errors in Friday’s game against Richmond Hill were infield mishaps. Nick Milbrandt was the tough-luck loser, pitching a complete game with seven strikeouts and no walks.

SEHS had some good moments, fighting back from 4-0 and 6-4 deficits while trying to spoil the Wildcats’ region championship hopes. In the sixth inning, the Mustangs had two run-scoring hits off Richmond Hill’s highly regarded righthander Leighton Finley, who entered in relief.

Finley, who has signed to pitch with the University of Georgia,  may have blown the save, but the Mustangs let the game slip away in the seventh with another error leading to a decisive run.

The Mustangs made errors to gift wrap three unearned runs in Game 2 against Richmond Hill. A week earlier against Effingham County, SEHS committed three errors leading to five unearned runs in the first inning.

“For two weeks now our defense hasn’t been what it should be,” Eubanks said.  “(Richmond Hill) put the ball in play, but we didn’t make the plays. If we fix our mistakes and play fundamental baseball, right now we’re the region champs.”

But they didn’t and they’re No. 4 in the region and headed to Westlake.

The Lions have won two straight region titles. They beat Northside last season in the first round of the state playoffs to advance to the Sweet Sixteen against Glynn Academy. The Red Terrors swept Westlake 14-1 and 6-5.

Eubanks says the focus will be on his team to turn things around.

“You can’t win by making seven errors,” Eubanks said. “It’s not like these kids don’t get ground balls and fly balls (in practice) every day. We hit the ball well (in the last game against Richmond Hill) and we competed, but we have to shore up our defense or we’ll play two (and lose) and come home.”