It was an all-too-familiar feeling for Handley after the first game of its second-round playoff series against Jackson Friday.
A here-we-go-again, watch-our-season-crumble-in-round-two kind of feeling. And you couldn’t blame anyone who felt that way. After all, talented Handley teams had come and gone through the years and for whatever reason, the air always seemed to go out of the balloon of promising seasons in round two.
But something changed between games one and two, and the Handley that played “atrocious” in the first game and lost 4-0 outscored Jackson 22-3 over the next two contests to win the series two games to one and do something no Handley team had ever done before – advance to the third round of the state playoffs.
“I’m just glad and happy to be a part of this group of young men,” said Handley head coach Tyler Hall. “They’re the ones who did it, and they deserve all the credit. To come from where they started at the beginning of the year to where they are now is a 180-degree turn. They truly have turned into a great team.”
Game one was a comedy of errors for Handley, without the comedy. The Tigers’ first base runner of the game was picked off of first base. The next inning they saw a promising scoring threat come to an end when another base runner was called out after leaving too soon attempting to tag up on a fly ball.
Inning after inning Handley seemed to do just enough to stay close and then just enough to waste any chances it had to break through and take the lead.
The Tigers trailed just 1-0 going into the bottom of the sixth inning, but mental mistakes and fielding miscues fueled a three run Jackson inning, and Handley’s promising start to the seventh was quickly snuffed out on a line-drive double play.
“That first game was atrocious,” Hall said. “It was sloppy on the basepaths. It was sloppy hitting. It was sloppy defensively. Jordan [Whaley] pitched well enough for us to win. I don’t know if it was jitters being the second round, thinking about what it was in the past. We just didn’t play our game that first game.”
There was no rah-rah speech between games. That’s not Hall’s style. But just because it wasn’t long-winded or overly animated doesn’t mean that the message didn’t get through.
“It was very short, very brief,” Hall said. “I just told them we can either get back on the bus and quit now and go back to Roanoke and our season will be over with. Or you can let that game get out of your head and play like we have been all year.”
The mood was still uncertain at the outset of game two, but Handley quickly put the nerves to rest. The Tigers got their first two runners on base via a walk and a hit batsman to Evan Cofield and Connor Bickers. One out later Ty Fetner laced a two-run single into the outfield, and the fog seemed to lift from over the Handley team.
The Tigers got follow-up RBI hits from Allen Exum and Whaley in what turned out to be a four-run first inning.
With the jitters long gone and the lead in his back pocket, Brantley Richardson turned in a pitching masterpiece that made sure those four runs stood up.
He pitched a complete-game one hitter, giving up just a second-inning single and striking out eight in a 9-0 Handley win that allowed them to have a chance to win the series in Saturday’s deciding game three.
Fetner went 2-for-3 with a walk and three runs scored, and Whaley and Richardson had two hits apiece as Handley seized momentum in the series.
Holding onto that momentum was far from certain, however, as Hall was left with a plethora of choices on how to approach game three from a pitching standpoint. All season long Whaley and Richardson were the clear 1-2 starting duo, but who to choose as the third starter was not so obvious.
“We ran through a ton of options last night about what we were going to do and how we were going to do it, and we finally came together with a plan this morning,” Hall said after the game Saturday.
The plan was to give the ball to senior Jake Cottle, and no one was happier about that plan than Jake Cottle.
“I went to his room, and I asked him, ‘Do you want the rock?’ And he said, ‘Yes, sir.’ And he had a big smile on his face. So that made me feel good,” Hall said. “That gave me all the confirmation I needed, so I felt good about our plan.”
Hall said the plan was to get through three innings with Cottle on the mound then turn things over to either Blayton Mangrum or Allen Exum, depending on the situation.
The plan worked to perfection.
Cottle patched together three effective innings, allowing just one run on three hits and three walks. And by the time Mangrum took the mound in the bottom of the fourth inning, Handley had built a 9-1 lead and was well on its way to a 13-3 victory.
Garrett Calhoun, who went 0-for-7 through the first two games of the series, erupted to go 4-for-4 with a double, a walk, two RBI and three runs scored to lead a Handley offense that played with the confidence of a team that expected to advance.
Leadoff man Evan Cofield was 3-for-5 with a double, an RBI and two runs scored. It was an exclamation point on a solid series for the senior centerfielder who hit .400, stole five bases and scored four runs in the three games.
Richardson batted .500 in the series and drove in four runs, Cottle went 4-for-6 with a walk and two runs scored in his two games in the batting lineup, and Fetner finished 5-for-11 at the plate with three RBI and five runs scored.
Hall said the final two games were a much truer representation of this Handley team’s capabilities and a display of its resiliency as well.
“We’ve been down. We’ve been down 10-1 and come back and won. We’ve had multiple wins coming from behind late in games. They never quit. They never think they’re out of the game at any point. That’s just a great way to play the game,” Hall said.
The Tigers will play at home in round three against its toughest challenge yet. They host a Mobile Christian team that entered the postseason ranked No. 1 in the state. They boast a 30-3 record after sweeps of St. James and No. 2 Gordo in the first two rounds.
“It will be a tough challenge,” Hall said. “But I’d much rather be playing Mobile Christian than sitting at home.”