Every so often, as he paces through the dugout, South Effingham baseball coach Tony Kirkland will dip into a cooler, pulling out another cold Diet Coke.
It’s his team that keeps its cool. And that’s OK with the Mustangs veteran coach.
“They’ve got to play that way,” Kirkland said. “That’s what makes them similar to every other group I’ve had here.
“I tell them, ‘I’m the one who’s supposed to be tight.’ I want all their anxiety to come to me.”
And like most of Kirkland’s previous Mustangs teams, they are in familiar territory — the Class AAA state semifinals.
The Mustangs (23-7) endured their share of anxious moments in their quarterfinal matchup with Oconee County. They led 7-6 in Game 1 as the Warriors loaded the bases with one out. Freshman Ian Byrd, smiling and joking while leaning on the dugout rail, was summoned to relieve starter Jesse Osborne. Byrd threw one pitch, and right fielder Marcus Zeigler’s diving catch turned into an inning-ending and potentially game-saving double play.
In Game 2, the Mustangs trailed 5-1 before storming their way to a 12-10 series-clinching victory. Byrd was called upon again to stem the tide in the fourth inning.
“The first day I handed him the ball on the mound and I went into my spiel, he said, ‘I got this, Coach,’” Kirkland said of Byrd.
Byrd’s demeanor is indicative of the Mustangs’ attitude — they’ll discuss what pitches they saw and one or two will even listen to an iPod between at-bats.
Their approach between the lines is a little more serious.
“When I first got here, I tried to instill in them, ‘get in the dugout and concentrate,’” Kirkland said.
It didn’t take long for him to change that mindset. His team’s attitude also has helped it maintain an even keel, even as they have fallen behind early in several games this season. They trailed Calvary and rallied before falling 10-9 midway through the season. The Mustangs were down 10-0 after one inning to Richmond Hill and eventually won 20-15. They also trailed Blessed Trinity 8-5 before scoring five times in the sixth inning and winning 10-9.
“These kids have a right to believe they can win anything,” Kirkland said. “It is a special group.”
So trailing early 5-1 to the sixth-round Warriors on the road, with one victory already in hand, didn’t cause the Mustangs to start looking ahead even with Oconee ace Derek Varnadore on the mound.
“So many coaches would have told you, ‘the kids packed it in, let’s go to Game 3,’” Kirkland said. “It was easy for the kids to say, ‘he’s their No. 2 starter. He’s rocking it up there at 86, 87 mph.’ And they didn’t. That’s a special quality the kids have.”
The rigors and demands of being high school students now behind them — Friday was the last day of school — the Mustangs are headed back on the road. So far, the state playoffs have taken them to McDonough and Watkinsville. Now, it’s on to Cartersville. Should they beat the No. 2-ranked Purple Hurricanes, another road trip will be in the offing.
“We knew what situation we were staring at when we didn’t win the region,” Kirkland said. “Our seniors have played their last ball game on this field. But every week I ask them for one more week.”
It’s also been an easy bunch with which to travel. There haven’t been any problems as Kirkland and his staff have carted a team now all around the state in recent weeks.
“This group travels so well,” he said. “When those kids have that kind of character about them, it makes our job easier.”
So far, the Mustangs have been able to avoid a lot of the obstacles — no series crossed paths with South Effingham’s prom, and there’s no game with this weekend’s graduation, even though the team will practice earlier that day. Players took their last exams early, but they handled that with no problem, Kirkland said.
“It didn’t seem to faze them a bit,” he said.
South Effingham will take on Cartersville, led by AFLAC all-American Taylor Hightower. The Purple Hurricanes (25-6) won 16 straight before losing Game 2 of their series to Columbus. In that span, they have given one run or no runs 11 times, and they’re averaging just nine runs a game since that streak started.
Cartersville won three straight state titles from 2001-03.
“Obviously, we’ve got to play well,” Kirkland said. “We’re matching strength on strength.”
The Mustangs have been to four semifinals in the last five years, and this senior class has reached it three times in their careers. But even on the long ride back from Oconee County, Kirkland didn’t notice any talk from his players about the Final Four.
“Last year, they wanted to get back to the Final Four,” he said. “I think this group wants to win it all. They are not remotely satisfied with the Final Four, even though to get here is a heckuva achievement. It’s a special group. There is no doubt.”