By Chad Dixon
Russell County (39-5) entered the season with four seniors and one junior. The Warriors relied heavily on the sophomore core and on May 5, fell short one game of advancing to the state championship in Class 6A. Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa ended the Warriors’ season with a 6-5 win in walk-off fashion.
“I was really proud of how our kids battled in as hostile environment as I’ve been in. Kids were outside of the outfield fences throwing stuff at our kids while yelling and cursing our players with parents going berserk and screaming. It was a fabulous atmosphere if you are a competitor. It reminded me of Spanish Fort. Every game was hard fought and was life or death. It was spectacular! I told our kids that whichever team made the most mistakes would lose and that’s exactly what happened. But our effort was off the charts each and every game and that’s all you can ask as a coach. Kids will make mistakes – that’s part of the game. But we didn’t have even a little quit in us. We fought till the end,” said Russell County Head Coach Tony Rasmus.
The series started with one of three one-run games on Friday evening in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Russell County’s Hunter Milam (10-1) allowed only one earned run on four hits and struck out six. Hillcrest’s Garrett McMillan was just better. He one-hit the Warriors and punched out six. Jackson Huguley had the lone Russell County hit. Milam posted a 2.17 ERA with a 0.98 WHIP in his senior season. He struck out a total of 106 batters over 58 2/3rd innings.
Game two of the series followed game one on Friday evening. Hillcrest took a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the fifth. Zac Rice hit a two-run, two-out double to left to score Kyle Saufley and Joseph Wade to tie the game at two. Hunter Donaldson walked to start the bottom of the sixth. Zane Faulk singled to center. Huguley advanced each runner a base with a sacrifice bunt. With runners at second and third, Logan Austin delivered a two-run single to give the Warriors a 4-2 lead.
Hillcrest would continue to fight and tied the game at four in the top of the seventh as they took advantage of a two-out walk and infield error. Zack Henderson was hit by the seventh pitch he saw to begin the bottom of the seventh. Saufley and Wade singled to load the bases. Donaldson had made the error to surrender the lead in the top of the inning. He responded with his second walk-off hit of the playoffs when he hit a one-out single to score Henderson to force a third and deciding game of the series. Donaldson led the Warriors with 58 runs scored this season. He hit .328 and had a .467 on-base percentage.
In game three on Saturday, the Warriors jumped out to an early 2-0 lead when Huguley hit a two-run single in the top of the first. Hillcrest would tie the game at two in the bottom of the third. Henderson’s RBI single to center would give Russell County a 3-2 lead in the next inning. Austin Embrey scored on the play. Refusing to quit, Hillcrest tied the game again in the bottom of the fourth when Kash Ryan hit an RBI single to center. Huguley led the top of the sixth off with a double to left. Logan Austin also doubled in the next at bat to score Huguley. Later in the inning, Henderson hit a sacrifice fly to center to score Austin to extend the Warriors’ lead to 5-3.
Hillcrest would simply not accept defeat. They tied the game at five in the bottom of the seventh when McMillan hit a two-run single to left. The game would go to extras. Jay Bramblett ended the Warriors season with a lead-off homerun in the bottom of the eight to send Hillcrest to the championship series.
“If you’d have told me before we started that we would go 39-5 and make it the Elite 8 in 6A, which is the toughest baseball classification in the state and have seven sophomores starting I’d have taken it 100 out of 100 times,” Rasmus added.
It was just a fabulous year and what’s even better is this group got to play three rounds of playoff baseball and grow up in the process. You can’t make up in practice the experience of playing pressure packed playoff baseball. Every game was intense and that experience in competing under that pressure should help us in the future.”
Huguley was 2-for-3 with two RBI and a double for the Warriors. Henderson was also 2-for-3 with two RBI. He also picked up a no-decision on the mound. He pitched six innings, allowed four earned runs on eight hits and struck out six.
Faulk led the Warriors with 45 RBI on the season. He also led the team with a 1.194 OPS and batted .391. He homered seven times and hit 17 doubles. Huguley drove in 41 runs, hit four homeruns, 12 doubles had a batting average of .359.
Kobe Van Bogart (8-1) finished his senior season leading the team with a 1.32 ERA and a WHIP of 0.85. He struck out 96 batters over 75 innings. Austin led the team with 129 strikeouts and posted a 2.17 ERA with a 0.98 WHIP. He was tied with Milam with 10 wins on the season.
“Obviously losing Hunter Milam and Kobe Van Bogart will be tough and we don’t really have any youngsters waiting in the wings to step in and take their place at that level of dominance so it’ll be back to the drawing board with a few eighth graders to try and develop them to step in and play next year. We’ll need Zack Henderson, Seth Mcconnell, Taylor Battles and Trysten Dozier to grow up quick and add velocity and strength over the summer and fall to replace those innings in our rotation,” Rasmus added.
“So I sit here today hurting after two tough one run losses at Hillcrest but supremely satisfied that we did all we could do as a team to win and be our best this year. That’s really all you can ask of your coaches and your players. We played with 12 players all year on our varsity and two of those were pitchers only. Our kids left it all on the field. That’s about as much as you can ask. This season was a huge step for Russell County to get back into the picture as a top program in this state. We rested up Saturday night and Sunday and will be back at it in the weight room on Monday working to get better. It’s just all our kids know to do!”