By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
GUYTON — After two stressful final weeks of the regular season, South Effingham baseball coach Todd Eubanks saw his players bring a different mindset to Westlake in the first round of the Class AAAAAA state tournament.
“We had a couple of good days of practice leading into the series and even though it was the state playoffs. We played relaxed,” Eubanks said.
And it showed. SEHS (22-10) jumped out to a good start in Game 1 and fought from behind in Game 2 during an 11-5, 6-4 sweep of the Lions in a best-of-three series April 27.
The victories advanced the Mustangs to a Sweet Sixteen best-of-three matchup with Allatoona, Region 6’s second seed, beginning with a doubleheader on the road Tuesday. If necessary, Game 3 would be played again at Allatoona on Wednesday.
South appeared to have gotten a second wind in the postseason after losing three straight to Richmond Hill and tumbling from a first-place tie in Region 2 to a No. 4 seed during the final week of the regular season.
The previous week, the Mustangs won two games during an emotional three-game series with county rival Effingham County.
“Our region is highly competitive and teams can physically drain you,” Eubanks said.
But SEHS rebounded. Two two-run singles by Noah Hollis in the second and third innings highlighted the Mustangs’ quick 6-0 lead against Westlake in Game 1. And when the Region 4 champion cut the advantage to one, SEHS sophomore Dru Futch tossed four scoreless innings in relief to close out the win.
In the nightcap, SEHS fell behind 4-1, but three scoreless innings in relief by Hunter Walthour kept Westlake from stretching the lead.
The Mustangs rallied in the bottom of the sixth inning, sending 11 batters to the plate to score five runs. Kaleb Johnson had the big hit with a two-run double to make it 5-4. Johnson scored an insurance run on Hollis’ sacrifice fly and Maddox Shiell pitched one-two-three seventh for the save.
The wins set the stage for SEHS to take another bus ride north. Allatoona (29-3) ended the regular season ranked fifth in Class AAAAAA by Score Atlanta.
The Buccaneers won their first 20 games this season, including victories over highly regarded regionmates Pope and Lassiter. Allatoona finished as the region’s second seed only by losing the run differential tiebreaker in its two games with Pope.
“Our region and their region are probably the best two regions in the state,” Eubanks said. “To win a state championship, you have to beat the best anyway. We played a challenging schedule to start the season and played tough region games so it’s not like we haven’t seen this type of competition.”