We started strong in both games and proved to ourselves that we could play with those guys.Rebels coach Chris Johnson
SPRINGFIELD — The Effingham County Rebels are only a couple rungs from the top of the Class AAAAAA baseball ladder.
After sweeping top-ranked Winder-Barrow 3-2 and 10-3 in Winder on May 8 — the Rebels (30-5) will take on Heritage (28-5) today in a best-of-three semifinal series. A third game, if necessary, will be played Wednesay.
The series winner will take on Harrison (28-7) or Pope (29-8) for the state championship next week in Rome.
Against Winder-Barrow, the Rebels flipped a script that served them well in the previous two rounds of the playoffs. Instead of rallying late to win the opener, they struck early and often, stunning a team that handled them easily March 2.
“The character of our kids showed,” Effingham County coach Chris Johnson said. “They had drummed us pretty good early in the year 14-0 but we knew then that they did not see our best baseball team. From the time that we knew that we were going to play them all the way through until (May 8), all our kids talked about was the opportunity to prove that we were a lot better than what we showed that day against a team that is outstanding.
“We started strong in both games and proved to ourselves that we could play with those guys.”
In the opener against the Bulldoggs, who had reeled off 20 straight victories, the Rebels tallied single runs in each of the first three innings. They also played flawlessly in the field.
“We just didn’t make any mistakes,” Johnson said. “The last time we played them, in the first two innings we made four errors and gave them six runs. It’s kind of tough to recover from something like that when you are as good as they are.
“The focus of our team was tremendous. From the get-go, we did not make an error in two games,. We had outstanding defense, we hit the baseball and the pitching was as good as it has been all year. We’ve had good pitching all year but it was outstanding (against Winder-Barrow). — Ethan (Johnson) and Merritt (Evans) both.
“It was an overall team win.”
Ethan Johnson (5-0, 1.80 ERA), the Rebels’ Game 1 starter, squelched the Bulldoggs, allowing just three hits. Only one of the hits came after he surrendered a two-run homer in the fourth frame.
First baseman Jerid Stokes knocked in two of the Rebels’ runs in the opener. One RBI came via a first-inning double that plated Christian Campbell. The other came on a third-inning groundout that knocked in Jordan Rahn.
Chase Howze knocked in a run in the second frame.
“We jumped on them pretty good,” Howze said. “Going into it, we had the goal in mind to jump on them and get some revenge. We kept (memories of the 14-0 loss to Winder-Barrow) in the back our head just to remember to jump on them and take it to them.”
Campbell and JR Lonon each got two hits in the opener.
In Game 2, the Rebels broke a 2-2 tie in the fourth inning by erupting for three runs. Howze drove in a run and a couple scored on errors.
Winder-Barrow finished with four defensive miscues in Game 2 and allowed four unearned runs.
Game 2’s fifth inning was as productive as the third for Effingham County as Lonon, Chandler Hinely and Rahn collected RBI.
The Rebels piled on two more runs in the sixth inning and didn’t bat in the seventh since they were designated as the home team.
Rahn finished with three hits and three runs scored. Lonon, Hinely, Austin Mealor and Howze each swatted two hits.
Evans was the winning pitcher. He allowed nine hits and struck out three while going the distance. He didn’t surrender a base on balls.
“It’s a tremendous group of kids (on the pitching staff,” Coach Johnson said. “Some of them may not have pitched as much but they work everyday. We put them in situations everyday so that when their turns comes they are prepared.
“They have answered the call and I attribute that to the kids. They have a huge heart.”
The coach overlooked no one with his praise.
“It was an overall team win,” he said. “The kids who may not have stepped on the field were just as responsible for us being as successful as we were the other day as the ones who were on the field.”