Region 7-AAA played with fire, but luckily for everyone involved, the Gainesville Red Elephants (24-1) were able to put it out.
It all started prior to the baseball season, when some people thought it would be a good idea to determine the region championship when the top teams from each subdivision play head-to-head.
From first glance that looks like a fine idea. It determines the region champ on the field and not through some arbitrary, BCS-like system. It gives fans a showcase of what the best teams look like when competing against each other with something at stake.
And it makes the players get a feel for what it is like to play postseason baseball; the close situations, the facing of the opposition’s best pitcher, the necessity for getting a timely hit.
But what this system failed to incorporate — or ignore — is the possibility that one of the subdivision teams might make an undefeated run while the other suffers some questionable losses.
This scenario was certainly likely prior to the season, as Gainesville, Creekview, White County, West Forsyth and Lambert were all capable of having a strong year and making a run at perfection.
Four of those five — West Forsyth excluded — made the postseason, and one of those teams — Gainesville — was undefeated entering last Wednesday’s region championship game against Creekview. The Grizzlies, the defending region champs, entered with six losses, three of which came during region play.
The idea of losing a region title to a team with more losses didn’t sit well with Gainesville.
“I don’t think it’s that great of a system, but that’s how it is,” senior catcher Sloan Strickland said prior to the game. “We’re still going to take care of business. We’ll have no excuses. We’ll get it done.”
It is ignorant to question Strickland’s confidence, because up until that region title game, the Red Elephants really hadn’t been tested.
They certainly were against the Grizzlies, who received four innings of no-hit ball from their starting pitcher Christian Van Camp.
Van Camp used three pitches to keep the potent Gainesville offense off balance, but the resiliency and fundamentals displayed by the Red Elephants allowed them to take the lead on a couple of walks and a pair of sac flys.
Gainesville finally got to Van Camp in the fifth by scoring five runs and forcing Creekview’s coach to go to the bullpen.
And from there it was all up to freshman pitcher Hunter Anglin, who started the five-run fifth with a home run and surrendered just an infield hit in the first inning during his complete-game win.
The Red Elephants’ performance that night did several things, but most importantly, it halted any discussion regarding which was the best team in the region and it proved that to have a successful team you have to develop your players, regardless of how young they are.
And what a better way to develop than to throw them into the fire.
Gainesville did that last year by playing a wealth of underclassmen which resulted in a 15-10 season that prevented any chance at making the postseason.
With that experience under their belts, plus the emergence of Anglin and presence of senior K.J. McAllister, the Red Elephants — pardon the pun — stomped their way through Region 7-AAA en route to their first region title since 2007.
“We matured, we play hard and we find a way to win,” coach Jeremy Kemp said of his team. “I don’t think anybody expected us to be where we are besides the coaches and players.”
That foresight is now a reality, and Gainesville will open up the Class AAA playoffs by playing host to Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe (17-8) on Friday.
How this young group of players react to the pressures of postseason is anyone’s guess, but they proved last week that they’re more than capable of winning big games.
Jonathan Zopf is a sports writer for The Times. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.