OAKWOOD — After earning a lopsided win over Fannin County on Friday night, a few West Hall baseball players stood in the corner of the home dugout holding a rolled up 2003 playoff banner, a symbolic reminder of the Spartans’ last trip to the postseason.
Those same Spartans are in the process of ending the school’s 11-year playoff drought, while also instilling a new sense of confidence within the West Hall program.
West Hall (12-5, 8-4) proved just how far its baseball program has come this season, and how serious of a playoff contender it is, when it needed just 90 minutes to earn a 16-1 rout over Fannin County in four innings Friday.
It was the team’s second dominating win over the Rebels this week, after a 19-2 win on Wednesday in Blue Ridge.
“The kids have worked hard,” West Hall coach Dustin Rennspies said. “They have bought into everything the coaching staff has brought in for them.”
West Hall, which finished with a 9-15 record last season, remains in prime playoff position following Friday’s win.
Currently, the Spartans are tied with White County for the No. 3 seed in Region 7-AAA, and there are still plenty of games remaining for them to move even higher, potentially into the No. 2 spot, which guarantees a home playoff series.
The Spartans are well aware of what it will take for them pull off a trip to the postseason. After all, Rennspies calls his team together after every region game to break down the region standings, keeping his players informed and focused on the ultimate prize.
The run toward a higher playoff seed could potentially start next Monday night, when the Spartans host White County in Game 1 of a two-game series that concludes Wednesday night in Cleveland.
“They’re smart kids,” said Rennspies, who played minor league baseball in both the Braves’ and Dodgers’ farm systems.
“They understand beating White (County) is important for seeding, but the overall goal of the team is to qualify for the playoffs, and to do that, win or lose against White County, we’ve still got games after that we need to focus on.”
Like their coach alluded to, the Spartans still have plenty of tough competition remaining this season, but the pair of dominating wins this week over Fannin County could provide them with the right amount of confidence they need to get through four more games against current playoff-bound opponents.
“Beating a time like (Fannin County), it’s a confidence booster,” third baseman Brian Newman said. “It’s building up for the higher seeded teams, like White County, North Hall and Buford. It’s definitely a confidence booster.”
A major reason for West Hall’s turnaround this season can be attributed to an offseason workout regime that included intensive weight training throughout the summer and fall, a key component to what Rennspies believes is necessary to be successful in any sport, baseball included.
The power of the offseason weight program has been clearly evident through the first 17 games. After finishing last season with no home runs as a team, the Spartans have already hit 16 homers this season, led by senior Cameron Johnson’s seven longballs.
That power was once again on display Friday night. The Spartans tallied 16 hits, including four doubles and a Newman home run, a two-run shot over the right centerfield fence that kick-started an 11-run third inning.
Newman’s home run scored Johnson, who reached base on a hit-by-pitch, and gave the Spartans a 5-1 lead. The inning continued with a double by Will Simmons, six straight singles, a two-run double by Johnson, and another single by Newman.
“Over the summer, we worked out a lot and we strived to get better,” Newman said. “We just went to work at the cages, we got our mechanics down and we’re just working real hard.”
By the end of the hit parade, the Spartans led 14-1 and needed just two more runs to end the game by run rule in the third inning.
Those two runs didn’t come until the fourth inning, though, when Lincoln Stubbs and Zach English recorded back-to-back singles to start the inning, only to score on a game-ending two-run double by Johnson on the following at-bat.
“They trust the approach and they trust the coaching,” Rennspies said. “They’ve bought into what we want. I’m happy — it’s nice to put those runs up, but I’m more concerned about the hits and what the mental approach is coming out to the game.
“We scored 19 (runs) Wednesday and it’d be easy to come out here and go ‘oh, we’re going to win.’ And they came out and they were focused. That’s all I ask them to do — is play hard and focused.”
Johnson finished the night a perfect 3 for 3 with five runs batted in. Newman was 2 for 2 with 3 RBIs, and Stubbs was 3 for 3 with a pair of RBIs for West Hall. On the hill, Simmons pitched all four innings for the Spartans, allowing one run on six hits while striking out six.