The abrupt end to the 2020 high school sports season in early March left thousands of players and coaches (and media members) throughout the state with a dissatisfying finish to what was shaping up to be an intriguing season.
That dissatisfaction comes bubbling to the surface during weeks like this one, as this coming Friday would have marked the start of the first round of the high school state baseball playoffs.
For local baseball teams at Handley and RCHS and Wadley, the playoffs have become something of a given. It’s news if those teams don’t make the playoffs, and all three of them seemed poised for a spot in the postseason once again.
In terms of recent history the exact opposite has been true for the Woodland Bobcats. Woodland has not reached the postseason since 2012, a streak that began a year after current Ranburne football coach Stephen Bailey coached the Bobcats to the third round of the 2A playoffs.
But perhaps more than any other year in that streak, this year’s Woodland team looked like it was capable of landing a spot in the postseason and ending that skid. It’s perhaps the biggest what-if of the high school baseball season that wasn’t, and Woodland head coach Lane Gay agrees.
“I had told the team that I felt that if they continued to improve every week and we developed two to three consistent pitchers along the way, that we had a legitimate shot at the playoffs this season,” Gay said.
Woodland had navigated a fairly challenging non-area schedule to post a 5-5 record before the season was cut short. Those five wins matched the team’s win total from a year ago when they went 5-12 and fell agonizingly short of reaching the playoffs after a pair of one-run losses to Horseshoe Bend in the series that decided second place in the area.
But it wasn’t just the wins this season, but also the way the team was winning.
It was Jackson Lovvorn’s walkoff single in a 5-4 win over RCHS in the season opener after the team entered the inning trailing 4-3.
It was scoring two runs to tie it in the bottom of the seventh against Wadley and then walking off again on Dalton Bolan’s eighth-inning single to win it 4-3.
“Two of our wins this year came off of seventh-inning walkoffs. To see them battle in those situations and to come out on the winning side, I saw a little piece in them that’s been missing for a while,” Gay said.
If any single player embodied Woodland’s emergence as a contender it’s Bolan. He cut his teeth last year as the team’s number two pitcher and second most productive hitter. After the graduation of Hunter Braswell, Bolan slid seamlessly into the role of top ‘Cat.
He led the team in OPS (1.383), home runs (2) and runs scored (13), and was second in RBI (9).
And he had established himself as the team’s clear number one starter with a 2-1 record, 2.86 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 14 and 2/3 innings pitched.
“When he was on the mound our entire team had the demeanor of knowing we had a chance to be good for that day,” Gay said.
The Woodland offense was also boosted by the development of sophomore Eli Rollins, who after hitting .273 as a freshman had established himself as a legitimate offensive threat. Rollins was leading the Bobcats in hitting with a .464 average and had driven in a team best 10 runs when the season ended.
That’s not to say that Woodland was suddenly a flawless team.
“Looking for that second starter was what I considered to be one of the bigger missing pieces,” Gay said.
Rollins, Ethan Copeland and Dale Robertson had all shown flashes of effectiveness, but none had become that reliable second arm behind Bolan.
But after years of watching nemesis Ranburne and a handful other teams race past them into the postseason, Woodland appeared to have closed the gap, particularly with a Horseshoe Bend team that barely edged them out of the playoffs a year ago.
“I still was looking at Ranburne as being the frontrunner to catch. So I felt once again, just like last season, it probably would have come down to us and Horseshoe Bend fighting for that number two spot,” Gay said.
We’ll never know, but a trip to the postseason – even it were brief – could have paid huge dividends for a Woodland team that loses just three seniors from this year’s squad.
But Gay is hoping that the negative of having this year’s opportunities erased will turn into a positive for all of those players that will return.
“I’m hoping that it created some hunger in some of them, where they say, hey, we might have something going here,” Gay said. “Now let’s take the next step and invest in the offseason in doing the little things away from the baseball season that could take us to that next step.”