All Tony Kirkland wanted at the beginning of the season was for his team to get better as the campaign rolled on.
It looks like he’s getting his wish.
The South Effingham High School baseball coach has steered his team through a nine-game winning streak that has resulted in a subregion championship, a region title and now a berth in the Class AAA quarterfinals against Riverwood.
“I’m happy,” Kirkland said. “With all we’ve been through and still going through, I’m happy we’re here in the round of eight after the way we started.”
South Effingham was 5-6 after a 3-2 loss to defending Class A state champ Calvary. The Mustangs then reeled off five wins in six games, all five victories coming against Region 3 opponents. They were tied atop the subregion standings after back-to-back losses, the final one a 12-2 thumping at the hands of Benedictine, before embarking on their most recent run.
“And we’re doing it with a lot of young kids,” Kirkland said. “We’re on a ride, and I’d just as soon stay on it until my quarter runs out.”
The Mustangs (19-9) swept their first two state playoffs series, beating Shaw in dramatic fashion in each game and knocking West Laurens out with sterling pitching performances.
They also are one of four No. 1 seeds left. The state’s top-ranked team, Cartersville, has been bounced out of the field as has No. 4-ranked Henry County. In fact, six of the top eight teams have been ousted.
Riverwood (25-6) was 13-1 in the region, losing only to Dunwoody. The Raiders have faced longtime Class AAAAA power Walton, ranked No. 2 in the state, Class AAAAA No. 6 Alpharetta, and Class AA top-notch programs Lovett and Holy Innocents.
Riverwood, the No. 2 seed from Region 5, had to go the distance to beat Sandy Creek. Now, the Raiders — the Mustangs have beaten teams named the Raiders in the first and second rounds — have to hit the road for the nearly 250-mile trip today.
“These guys are getting off the bus and they’ve been traveling,” said Mustangs pitcher Jesse Osborne, the likely Game 1 starter. “They’ve got to be tired.”
Meanwhile, the Mustangs have no distractions ahead of them. Prom is done. Graduation has come and gone. Kirkland even joked of finding something abnormal for his team to make things seem normal, given all the end of the school year activity surrounding them.
“We’re just going out there and doing our best and having fun,” said shortstop Colby May, who also got the save in the clincher against West Laurens.
May and Matt Zettler got the final eight outs in the 4-1 Game 2 win last Tuesday in relief of emergency starter Patrick Styblo. In the 9-1 Game 1 victory, nine different Mustangs scored runs. Every batter had at least one hit, and six hitters each drove in at least one run. Seven players had at least one hit in the second game, and the Mustangs also turned two double plays, including the 8-6 gem started by Styblo in center field to end the game.
“It tells you we are a team,” Osborne said. “We don’t rely on one person to get the job done.”
The Mustangs have been here before — they’ve reached the semifinals twice under Kirkland. But a team that began the season not nearly as experienced as the coach’s previous teams has quickly gained seasoning.
“Right now, we’re capable of anything we want to do,” Osborne said. “The bats are on fire and the defense has stepped it up.”
That 5-6 start now seems a long way away for the Mustangs, and not just by looking at the calendar.
“Our goal was to get better,” Kirkland said. “Right now, we’re better than we’ve been. If we can continue to get better, you never know what might happen.”
Class AAA quarterfinals
• Who: Riverwood at South Effingham
• What: Best of three series
• When: Today, 5 p.m.; Wednesday, 1 p.m. (if necessary)
• Where: The Corral
• Next: The winner faces the winner of the Blessed Trinity-Columbus series in the semifinals.
How they got here:
Beat Franklin County 2-0 (8-1, 8-2)
Beat Sandy Creek 2-1 (15-1, 3-6, 8-3)
Beat Shaw 2-0 (6-4, 7-6)
Beat West Laurens 2-0 (9-1, 4-1)
Blessed Trinity (21-8) at Columbus (24-7)
Troup County (23-9) at Dunwoody (28-2)
Peach County (26-4) at Carrollton (21-10)
Holy Innocents’ at SCPS