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Mustangs finding the right mix
South Effingham senior Paul Cheeks, getting out of the way of an inside pitch in the opener against Shaw last Friday, and the Mustangs are now back at full health, giving coach Tony Kirkland a decision to make on who to play. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

The dilemma is a difficult one for Tony Kirkland, but it beats the alternative.

Instead of finding someone to play, the South Effingham baseball coach has to decide who doesn’t start for the Mustangs. With the bulk of his injured and sick players now at full strength, and at just the right time, Kirkland has to decide how to fill out his lineup card between them and the younger players who stepped up in their absence.

“The hardest thing I had to do this week was make a decision of a couple of injured guys to get back into the lineup,” he said.

For the final home game of the regular season, which was senior night, the issue was simple — seniors Paul Cheeks, Ryan Cole and Matt Tufts started, as did Patrick Styblo.

Cheeks was sidelined after the Carrollton game with a quadriceps injury and missed most of the Region 3-AAA games. Tufts had a burst appendix just before the start of the season, and Cole had Tommy John surgery.

Since his return, Cheeks is 5-for-11, and Tufts is 4-for-8 with a homer since returning to the lineup. Cole beat Harlem in the region championship game and went 4 1/3 innings in the clincher against Shaw in the first round of the state playoffs.

But that means Kirkland has to find playing time for some players who had filled in in their stead. Whoever he does put in the lineup and on the field, the other Mustangs have confidence in them.

“They can get the job done as well as we can,” senior third baseman Waylon Pickard said.

Even with his seniors back, Kirkland has managed to get his younger players back into action.

“It seemed to work out for us,” he said. “All five guys have done their job, and it was a difficult decision to make.”

Kirkland turned to his younger players in key situations against Shaw. Left-handed sophomore Zach Anderson, who also has been a starter in the outfield, came on in relief of Cole to get the final two outs of the fifth in Game 2. Michael Miller was 2-for-2 off the bench and helped trigger the comeback against Calvary, which Ryan Baggott capped with a two-run single.

The biggest contribution may have come from junior Matt Zettler, who gave up a hit and a walk and struck out three in two innings, earning a win and a save to close out Shaw.

“We’ve got a lot of talent on this team,” Zettler said. “We’ve just got a bunch of ballplayers.”

The Mustangs, after 24 games, are veterans now, and are facing West Laurens in the second round of the Class AAA state playoffs. The Raiders won their subregion and are 21-8 for the season.