Story By Griffin Pritchard | Publisher
Photos by: CA Scoreboard Staff
Area softball and baseballers awoke Thursday morning to notice freshly painted targets placed squarely in the centers of their backs. The Alabama Sportswriters Association, late Wednesday night amidst a backdrop of meteorological tumult, published its first polls of the 2021 season. In softball, the seven No.1’s are defending state champions from the 2019 season: Class 7A Hewitt-Trussville (16-1-1), Class 6A Athens (15-3), Class 5A Faith Academy (12-1-1), Class 4A Curry (23-3), Class 3A Prattville Christian (14-5), Class 2A Pisgah (6-2) and Class 1A Brantley (10-5).
“It’s nice to be recognized as a program, but really all it does is put a bigger target on our backs,” said Randy Stough, coach of the PCA Panthers (No.1 in 3A). It’s nice to be recognized, but this doesn’t matter at this point. It’s how we finish. We are in pursuit of the 3A blue map.”
PCA is just one of a host of teams from within Central Alabama Scoreboard Coverage Community – most of which squared off head-to-head in the CA Scoreboard Classic, hosted by Wetumpka High.
Mark Segrest at Elmore County conveys the same sentiment as Stough: “I tell my kids congrats on the work so far, but we aren’t going to be able to sneak up on people anymore. We’ll normally see everyone’s best, so we need to make a lot of improvements over the next couple of months.”
AHSAA SOFTBALL POLL REACTIONS
Before looking at the poll (starting with AHSAA Softball) some area teams fell short of making the 10. Auburn High is a great example.
“We are 9-7 overall, 6-5 against teams ranked or receiving votes,” said Matt Hendricks, coach of the Tigers. “To me, we’re right where we should be. The polls have no importance or significance, and that’s how I relay it to my players. Look at 2018 – were No. 3 and went 0-2 in the area tournament; 2016, 2017, 2019 – we were unranked and had three state tournament appearances. Perceptions matter to some. But to us, it’s how you perform.”
While the Tigers got a mention – the area is ripe with teams on the cusp: Chilton County (11-8), Montgomery Catholic (9-7) and Thorsby (6-3).
But those that made onto that first list speak to the quality of softball being played across the state. Putting it into perspective (thanks to sports writer Dennis Victory for this tidbit): “Three Class 7A teams are ranked nationally with Hewitt-Trussville No. 2 in the USA Today Super 25 along with Bob Jones at No. 10 and Spain Park No. 19. MaxPreps ranks Hewitt-Trussville No. 7 and Bob Jones No. 21 in its Top 25 with Class 6A second-ranked Helena and Class 7A fifth-ranked Central-Phenix City ‘on the bubble.’”
Here’s how the 7A poll shapes up locally: Spain Park is 4th and Central-Phenix City is 5th.
Mitchell Holt – Central Phenix City – “We’ve had a great start to the season and it’s a testament to our girls dedication and sacrifice to put in the work. I’ve stressed to them to be proud of the start but you are remembered for how you finish. We will get back to the fundamentals over spring break and hope that leads to a great second half.”
The Red Devils (17-1) will play at Elmore County before taking a week off for Spring Break and then will return to tournament play the following week at the Oxford Tournament.
In the 6A poll Spanish Fort, the newest addition to the Coverage Community sits in the middle of the pack, ranked fifth behind Buckhorn (13-2) and in front of Fort Payne (12-1).
Despite their three-loss record, Toros coach Lauren Stewart expected her bunch to be in the middle of the pack.
Stewart: “We are about where I thought we would be after our International Tiebreaker loss to Faith (#1 in 5A) on Tuesday. We understand that there is a lot of work to do, not to be ranked higher but to ultimately win a 6A State Championship.”
That’s the one commonality amongst all the coaches interviewed for this article: paraphrasing – “Hey polls are great but they don’t win championships.”
Spanish Fort and all the teams have a ton of softball left to play.
Stewart: “We cannot waiver from keeping our sights on that goal. However, I do feel it will put some things into perspective for them. The girls see the rankings on their own and understand that they are not the end-all-be-all. They enjoy checking out other teams and having conversations about it, but they understand that rankings do not define us as a team.”
Rankings are conversation starters and opportunities to brag, especially given the tournament and almost communal nature of the sport.
Think about how many travel ball teams have representatives from a multitude of different schools playing throughout the summer.
Historically 5A has always been a highly competitive class, regardless of the sport. And the level of parity within the league has only grown with the advent of Class 7A.
In this first softball poll, for instance, Faith Academy (Mobile 12-1-1) is the classification’s best – but then right on the Rams’ tails are a group of Tallassee High Tigers (14-6-2 at No. 2) the Brew Tech Rams (19-2 at No. 3) and a pack of Elmore County Panthers (17-5 at No. 4 in their first season as a 5A team).
“It’s always nice to see your kids get recognition for the hard work they put in,” said Segrest. “There are lots of good teams in this league, so being ranked in the top five is an honor.”
Brian Pittman, coach of the Brew Tech Rams agrees: “It’s always exciting to be ranked and recognized for the hard work you put in to the season, but this is not the end goal for our group.”
There’s a level of complacency a team has to avoid.
Pittman: “We have a lot more that we want to accomplish and we are working to get better every day. If you are satisfied with being ranked right now, you won’t be there in the end.”
In 3A – Prattville Christian knocked off Geneva in the 2018 AHSAA State Softball Tournament to win the 3A State Championship.
Being a former state champion, on the trajectory to compete for another – the target doesn’t get any larger.
Stough: “We will get everyone’s best pitcher and best game. We will have to prepare even harder.”
The challengers are going step forth from all parts of Alabama: North, South, East and West.
AHSAA BASEBALL POLL REACTIONS
Taking on all challengers isn’t a concept exclusive to softball. The baseball diamond is going to be just as competitive with teams looking to add blue maps to their collection. ASWA writer Ben Thomas pointed this out: “The current No. 1 teams in classes 4A-7A have combined to win nine state titles since 2010 including three each by Russellville and Mobile Christian. Auburn won one in 2009 and then have won two since. Faith Academy won in 2018.”
The first poll is ripe with champions from the 2019 season: 7A McGill-Toolen, 6A Cullman, 5A Springville, 4A Brooks, 3A Providence Christian 2A G.W. Long and 1A Mars Hill Bible.
While Auburn checks in atop the first 7A poll with a 13-1 mark, they have a handful of worthy competitors nipping at their heels: Hewitt-Trussville (No. 2 with a 14-2 mark), Florence (No. 3 at 11-4), Prattville (No.4 at 13-4) and Central-Phenix City (No. 5 at 16-1).
“It’s always nice to see what others think of our program,” said Lions skipper Kevin Hall. “It’s an honor for our kids, but it’s something we don’t really talk about or set goals to be (ranked in the polls.) Although nice, it doesn’t help us in the future as far as winning games. Our guys know we aren’t where we want to be but we are making strides to play like we are capable of playing.”
Speaking of making strides – the Stanhope Elmore Mustangs have started their 2021 campaign at a full gallop, racing out to a 15-1 mark and a No. 6 in the 6A poll.
“It’s always nice to see what others think of our program. It’s an honor for our kids but it’s something we don’t really talk about or set goals to be.
I would tell the kids that our previous teams laid the foundation to be recognized as a program. Although nice, it doesn’t help us in the future as far as winning games. Our guys know we aren’t where we want to be but we are making strides to play like we are capable of playing.
“I’m glad the guys are getting recognition for their hard work and what they’ve accomplished so far,” said DK Shuman, coach of the Mustangs. “I’m telling the team they should be proud that SportsWriters see them as a team worthy of being ranked, but not to get complacent. Our immediate goal is to win the area and rankings don’t win those tough games against great programs.”
The Mustangs are looking at you Benjamin Russell and Wetumpka.
Baseball has such a rich history in Elmore County and there’s no more a shining example than Holtville High.
The Bulldogs are the “and 1” in the Mustangs 15-1 record. They enter into the first poll with an 8-2 mark at No. 5 behind two-loss Russellville (No.1) and ahead of two-loss Pike Road (No. 10).
“It’s an honor to be ranked fifth,” said Scott Tubbs, coach of the Bulldogs. “It just shows that people have recognized the hard work that these guys have put in. But we don’t really focus on the polls. I tell my guys it’s great to be recognized, but we need to stay focused on us. If we focus on us instead of who we are playing and the press clippings, we will be fine. If we can focus on things we can control, winning will take care of itself; with the wins come higher rankings and recognition.”
AISA POLL REACTIONS
In the Alabama Independent School Association softball poll Clarke Prep sits atop, but a host of the usual suspects including Macon-East (No. 2) and Edgewood (No. 5) are set to go Gator hunting.
Hooper (at No. 9) – after a long time looking from the outside in – has now joined the fray.
“I’m appreciative that we are in the top 10 of the first AISA poll,” said Elyse McIntyre, coach of the Lady Colts. “Being ranked is a start and we see it as a motivation to keep working harder.”
Being in the poll – no matter the league – is the starting point: it’s not the ending.
McIntyre: “They want to be at the top, like every team does. This should fuel us to be better and keep improving by the end of the year. It’s important to see where other individuals rank them based on past performance because there is always room for progression.”
With one poll in the books, it’s going to be interesting to see and track the changes from week to week leading up the area tournaments and the postseason competitions that follow.
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