Sweet Water sweeps Ragland to move to Class 1A state championship

(Photo by Johnny Autery)
Sasha Smith slides in safely to third base as coach John Gluschick looks on in game one.

SWEET WATER – By his own admission, postseason play had been unkind to Hunter Mendenhall, who was batting .294 in the playoffs and was just 1 for his last 10 heading into Wednesday’s Class 1A semifinal series-clinching victory over Ragland. Mendenhall was unkind to Ragland pitching in the contest as he doubled and homered to drive in two of the three Sweet Water runs in a 3-2 victory.

Mendenhall broke a scoreless tie with two out in the top of the fourth inning when he sent a solo shot beyond the fence in right center for the 1-0 lead.

“Right off the bat I felt like it was gone. I’ve been struggling the past couple weeks and I stayed with it grinding and got a blessing,” Mendenhall said.

The Purple Devils did not stay down long as senior Jeremy Burnham hit the first pitch of the bottom half of the inning to the scoreboard in left to tie the game. Freshman starter Sasha Smith gave up two more Ragland hits in the frame but battled back to strand both runners and preserve the tie.

Smith left after five innings of work have scattered five hits and two walks while striking out three. John Thomas Etheridge inherited Smith’s leadoff walk in the sixth but left the runner aboard due in part to senior right fielder Will Huckabee’s third highlight reel catch of the series. Huckabee darted to his right on a ball sharply hit to the gap in right center, extended his gloved left hand and snared the ball while falling forward to the ground.

(Photo by Johnny Autery)
Bulldog outfielder Will Huckabee slides to the ground after making a phenomenal catch a the late innings of game two.

“If it’s in the air, I’ve got to go get it. It’s mine. I’ve got to go get it. That’s every ball,” Huckabee said.

“Will, defensive player of the game. I don’t know how I’m going to replace him next year,” Sweet Water head coach John Gluschick said. “Even though we’ve got our No. 2 (pitcher) coming back; he’s had Tommy John, we’re still going to be good, but I don’t know how I’m going to replace Will. He has been so huge for us in right field.”

With the game tied 1-1 in the top of the seventh, Huckabee started the frame with a single through the left side. Mendenhall stepped to the plate and quickly found himself in an 0-2 hole. Huckabee stood on top of first base, clapped his hands violently and aggressively shouted at his classmate in the batter’s box.

“It’s kind of a secret thing, but I was just trying to get him to do his job,” Huckabee said of the moment. “He had a job and I’m glad he came through. Everything worked out.”

Mendenhall dug himself out of the 0-2 hole and rocketed a ball into the gap in right center to plate Huckabee for the 2-1 lead.

“You can never give up. We’ve been grinding all year for this, working hard every day. You can never give up,” Mendenhall said.

“Huge. Great at-bats in the clutch. He did a great job behind the plate. He caught 13 innings last Friday and he comes out here and gets two big hits,” Gluschick said of the Mendenhall. “He’s a senior. He stepped up.”

R.J. Rodgers checked in as a courtesy runner for Mendenhall as second base and promptly moved to third on Chance Broussard’s sacrifice bunt. Rodgers later darted home on a passed ball and went head first on a slide that put him in well ahead of the tag.

With the 3-1 lead, Etheridge took to the rubber again in the bottom of the seventh. After he coaxed a grounder, an errant throw put the first Purple Devil batter of the inning aboard. Gluschick wasted no time summoning game one starter Jonah Smith to the hill.

“We were going to give the ball to him. He is what got us here. He’s 13-2. He got a save,” Gluschick said. “You want your best guy in that clutch situation with the ball and, once again, he came through.”

Smith had 26 pitches remaining in his pitch count allowance after having thrown 94 in a complete game effort just hours earlier.

“Throw strikes,” Jonah Smith said of his mentality when he took the ball from his coach. “We were up by two runs and I told Coach Marshall in the dugout that I wanted to go back out to close the game. He said he would let me if J.T. let somebody on, so I just threw strikes and let them hit it.”

Stoney Merritt, who reached on a fielder’s choice, later made his way home on Burnham grounder to second to cut the lead to 3-2. With the tying run 90 feet away and the winning run at first base, Smith got the Ragland five-hole hitter to fly out to straightaway center to end the game.

“I feel like the coaches have confidence in me to throw strikes and just end games,” Smith said.

Sweet Water 10, Ragland 2

Sweet Water coaches also had plenty of confidence in their junior ace to throw strikes and start game as well as Smith scattered four hits in a complete game effort to open the series.

“He has good enough stuff on his fastball where he can throw it by most hitters,” Gluschick said of Smith. “First game he had a good breaking ball. That adrenaline was flowing here in game two. He just battled. He’s a bulldog. Through and through, he’s a bulldog.”

Ragland jumped on Smith early when Noah Hollingsworth singled in the top of the first before scoring on Coby Fuller’s triple. Fuller later scored on Burnham’s RBI grounder for the quick 2-0 lead.

“First inning they came out hitting. We figured they were going to because fastballs is pretty much all we throw,” Smith said. “I made my adjustments on the curveball, started throwing that for strikes and they couldn’t handle it.”

Sweet Water knifed the deficit in half in the bottom of the second when Chance Broussard singled and later scored on Braiden Broussard’s single to make it 2-1.

The Bulldogs took command in the third when they hung five runs on the board. Sasha Smith tripled and scored on Jonah Smith’s single. Chastain Washington and Huckabee scored on Mendenhall’s two-run single to give the Bulldogs the lead. Mendenhall then moved the lead to 5-2 when he swiped home as teammate Braiden Broussard was busy evading a tag to get himself out of a rundown between first and second. He later scored on an error for the 6-2 lead.

“We were focused. We knew they threw down against Jonah and we were just really seeing the ball,” Gluschick said of Ragland, which saved its ace starting pitcher for game two. “We had a good day of practice yesterday just kind of playing pepper with the ball. We were shortening our swings and striving to make contact up the middle.”

The Bulldogs added to the lead in the fourth when Huckabee tripled in Sasha Smith. Braiden Broussard scored on an error in the fifth to move it to 8-2. A pair of errors plated Sasha Smith and Huckabee in the seventh for the final runs of the game.

“It’s crazy. I can’t believe it right now. I feel like I’m about to cry. It’s crazy,” Huckabee, who had four of his team’s 15 hits in game one, said of the emotion of advancing to the state championship round.

“We put it on our schedule and put it one our roster. Last year I put it on 2016 2A area champs. This year, we started from game one 2017 1A state champs. We changed the mindset,” Gluschick said. “We knew we were dropping down to 1A. We knew we were going to be good and we played a tough schedule that got us ready for this down the stretch.”

Sweet Water (30-7) is set to face Decatur Heritage at 4 p.m. Monday before returning to Riverwalk Stadium in Montgomery Tuesday at 10 a.m. for game two.

“We’ve got to say on our hitting. Our defense is picking up good. We’ve just got to stay on our stuff, just play Sweet Water ball,” Huckabee said.

“You can’t get in a bigger stage than this right here. We’ve played a good schedule and that has prepared us,” Gluschick said. “I just want them to have fun. I just want them to get out there and have fun.”