Cavaliers set for quarterfinal showdown
Published 11:10 pm Tuesday, May 8, 2018
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
He felt like the potential was there.
As Callaway baseball coach Dusty Hubbard led his team through the first preseason practice in February, he saw a group of players who could possibly do some special things down the road.
He was under no illusions about the work the team needed to do, though.
Many of the key players from the 2017 team that won a region championship were gone, including all of the starting outfielders, a few infielders, as well as one of the top pitchers in Josh Hanson.
Hubbard was going to be relying on some unproven players to help lead the way this spring, so there were plenty of unknowns.
There were some stumbles in the early going as Hubbard figured out a lineup and a defensive configuration that would work best.
Considering the Cavaliers are one of eight teams left standing in Class AA, though, everything has obviously come together nicely.
Callaway (24-9), after beating Douglass-Atlanta and Rabun County in the first two rounds of the playoffs, will try to keep its season going today when it takes on Thomasville in a third-round showdown.
It will be Callaway’s toughest playoff test to date.
Thomasville (29-5), which ended the regular season ranked first in the georgiadugoutpreview.com poll, will come to second-ranked Callaway today with a berth in the semifinals on the line.
They’ll play a doubleheader today at 4:30 p.m., and if needed, a third and deciding game would be played on Thursday at 3:30 p.m.
“You’re just glad to be here, and whoever you play, you’ve just got to go out and play your best game,” Hubbard said. “That’s what it’s going to boil down to, who’s going to be able to play their best game.”
Hubbard points to a game in late March as a turning point for his team.
After winning two in a row against Lamar County, Callaway lost the series finale 6-2.
Before that loss, the Cavaliers had won eight consecutive games.
“A game that I felt was a big game for us, and I felt we started practicing better and playing better, was when we lost to Lamar,” Hubbard said. “I think our guys kind of realized we weren’t as good as we thought we were. We went out that next week and felt like we really prepared well. We went out and played Jordan at their place and took it to ‘em. I think that kind of turned around our season.”
Callaway won three straight games against Jordan, and it won two in a row against Heard County to claim the Region 5-AA championship.
“It’s different with different teams,” Hubbard said. “You’d love for them to get in here from day one and know how to do those types of things, but it isn’t always like that. To their credit, they did figure that out. Because some of them don’t ever figure that out.”
Callaway opened its playoff stay by beating Douglass 16-0 and 16-0 to sweep the doubleheader.
In the second round, Callaway blanked Rabun County 3-0 in the first game before rallying for a 9-7 victory in the second game.
Callaway trailed by a run before scoring three runs in the top of the seventh, with Braelin Mitchell hitting a go-ahead two-run home run.
Now, Callaway is two wins away from the second trip to the semifinals in the history of the program.
“That’s one thing coach Hubbard always says to us. All you can ask for is an opportunity,” said senior Kyle Campbell. “You can’t ask to win every game, but all you can ask for is an opportunity to be in this situation.”
In today’s first game, senior Chandler Lott will likely get the ball.
Lott, in arguably the biggest game he’s pitched during his two seasons as a Cavalier, threw a four-hit shutout in the 3-0 win over Rabun County last week.
“I’ll take him over anybody left,” Hubbard said. “He’s proven time in and time out that he can win the big games.”
Hubbard said that one of Lott’s greatest strengths is his ability to not let the emotions of a big game get the best of him.
“He channels it very well,” Hubbard said.
Callaway’s number two starter is sophomore Wesley Marchman, who hasn’t lost a game this season.
Austin Barber pitched 3 1/3 scoreless innings in relief of Marchman to get the win in game two of the Rabun County playoff series.
If needed, Hubbard has a number of other pitchers he can call upon, including Dawson Wright, a potential starter in a game three.
Callaway has a balanced lineup, with hitters one through nine capable of contributing.
Drake Wade has had a big season hitting mostly from the leadoff position, and Trent Sheppard has done a solid job at the two hole in the order.
Chandler Lott, in addition to what he’s done on the mound, is Callaway’s top hitter with a batting average well above .400, and Braelin Mitchell has settled into the cleanup spot.
Mitchell has hit three home runs in the playoffs, including the big one against Rabun County.
Kyle Campbell, a versatile player who during his time as a Cavalier has been a pitcher, a catcher, a third baseman and outfielder, hit sixth in the order against Rabun County and had a big series.
Wesley Marchman, Buster Perry, Brooks Bledsoe, Jabari Smith, Walt Stewart and Destin Patrick have also been productive hitters for the Cavaliers.
Thomasville, which won the Region 2-AA championship, will bring a deep and talented pitching staff to Callaway.
In the opening-round series, Thomasville beat Bacon County 1-0 and 5-0 to advance.
In the second round, Thomasville needed three games to beat Harlem.
After winning the first game 12-1, Thomasville dropped the second game 4-3.
In the winner-take-all game three on Friday, Thomasville scored three runs in the sixth inning to win 4-1.
Thomasville will lean on pitchers Buck Bennett, Jacob Bradshaw and Hurston Waldrep to shut down Callaway’s offense.
Thomasville is a formidable team, and it’s a big-time challenge, but the Cavaliers aren’t complaining since they’re still playing.
“In life, about all you can ask for is an opportunity,” Hubbard said. “And I told them you’ve got it. It’s about what you make of it.”