By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
GUYTON -- The permanent aluminum bleachers that span dugout to dugout at South Effingham’s baseball field couldn’t accommodate the anticipation Thursday afternoon.
An extra 500 late ticket purchasers meant more bleachers were needed down the right-field line. Some watched from an elevated platform down the left-field line. Others sat on the top of trucks beyond the outfield fence.
“I got a little feeling in my chest,” Mustangs second baseman Philip Cooper said. “We’ve never gotten that kind of support before in baseball.”
SEHS only had one runner round third base during a 6-1 loss to Pope to end the season in the quarterfinals of the Class 6A state baseball tournament, but the Mustangs’ program seemed to turn the corner.
“Our kids can be very proud,” SEHS coach Todd Eubanks said. “Our community, the school was out in full force this week. We’ve made the steps to prove baseball is back.”
Of course, winning helps. This year’s squad, through the ups and downs, made it exciting.
The Mustangs (27-11) displayed character and resilience while tying a school single-season record for wins, previously set in 2002.
South, moving up from Class AAAAA this year, won a region championship for the first time since 2007 and a state playoff series for the first time since 2016.
And the Mustangs were close to a state semifinal appearance in 2021. Left fielder Maddox Shiell threw out a runner at the plate to end Game 1 and give South a wild 9-8 victory over Pope, an established winning program from Marietta that captured state titles in 2017 and 2018 and played for another in 2019.
SEHS and Pope were tied 3-3 in the sixth inning of Game 2 before the Greyhounds found their bite, scoring six runs in the sixth for a 9-3 victory and carrying over their offensive surge to Game 3.
“I know I’ll look back and be appreciative of what we accomplished,” Cooper said. “We got to the Elite Eight and I’m glad we had that one last chance to play together.”
Cooper, Nick Duke, Shane Chapman and others provided senior leadership and ended their high school careers on high notes.
But the majority of the Mustangs will have more chances. Seven starters will return, along with all starting pitchers from the state quarterfinal series.
Nick Milbrandt, the Region 2-AAAAAA pitcher of the year, will be back along with first-team all-region players Kaleb Johnson and Hunter Walthour.
Johnson, who pitched a 1-0 shutout over Richmond Hill for the region championship, and Avery Sikes, who started two Game 3s in the state playoffs, were both sophomores this season.
“You’re talking about a kid who put up most of his innings on the junior varsity this year,” said Eubanks about Sikes. “We knew he had it in him and last week he did well (against Lee County) and he gave us a chance (against Pope).”
Hollis, a junior third baseman, lived up to his nickname of “Hollywood” by hitting .500 (7 for 14) in the final two series, including the dramatic, walk-off home run against Lee County in extra innings in Game 3 of the Sweet Sixteen.
Starting catcher Aaron Benton, a sophomore, hit .318 (7 for 22) in the state playoffs. Shiell, shortstop Carson Spendiff and outfielders Zach Wert and Zach Zorbo will be back after seeing considerable playing time as well.
“The fact is the majority of our team is coming back and the experience and the valuable lesson we had right here will be something to build on in the offseason,” Eubanks said. “The kids will be hungry. The foundation has been laid and we’ll see what happens.”