Smith subdues Decatur Heritage as Sweet Water takes game one

Jonah Smith moved to 14-2 on the season Monday with a 4-2 victory over Decatur Heritage in game one of the Class 1A State championship series. Smith struck out seven and allowed four hits in the contest.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. –  Jonah Smith gets more comfortable as the game goes along, a fact that proved true again as Sweet Water beat Decatur Heritage 4-2 in game one of the Class 1A State Championship Monday.

“The first of the game, I was struggling to throw strikes. As the game went on, I got more consistent at finding the strike zone,” Smith, who struck out seven and seven and gave up four hits and two earned runs

“It was just the fastball. We’re going to let them hit the fastball and there in the seventh, they did,” Sweet Water coach John Gluschick said. “The top of the lineup is pretty good. He can throw strikes. We can work that breaking ball over and then we’ll be just fine.”

The Eagles got on Smith in the second inning when Jackson Parker opened with a single before Carter Sample repeated the feat to put runners on the corners. Smith settled in and induced a groundball up the middle that resulted in a 6-4-3 double play. Parker scored on the play but the rally was effectively nullified.

“We take so much pride in our defense,” shortstop Braiden Broussard said of the double play that settled the game for his starting pitcher. “It’s just fundamentals at that point. I don’t think about it. The ball is hit to me, I round it off, give him a good feed.”

The double play started a string of 14 consecutive batters retired by Smith, who struck out the final batter of the inning for the exclamation point.

Shamar Lewis scores the final Sweet Water run of the game on a passed ball in the sixth inning. Lewis notched two hits in the contest.

“He got key strikeouts and he had that confidence. He threw the ball hard. Nothing we haven’t seen before,” Decatur Heritage’s Grayson Wakefield said. “He had his stuff. Guys have those kind of days. I’ll give him props. He’s a good pitcher and good pitchers do that kind of stuff.”

The 1-0 Decatur Heritage lead evaporated in the bottom of the third when the Bulldogs scratched out a pair of runs. Sasha Smith reached on a fielder’s choice and later scored on an error of the bat of Will Huckabee to tie the game. Chastian Washington entered the game as a courtesy runner and scored on Hunter Mendenhall’s sacrifice fly to center for the 2-1 lead.

For his part, Decatur Heritage starting pitcher Clay Shaw was not shaken by the moment. He went six innings and struck out three while scattering eight hits and walking only one.

Sweet Water (31-7) added to its lead in the third when Broussard reached on a fielder’s choice and scored on a passed ball. Shamar Lewis singled in the sixth and later scored on a passed ball for the 4-1 lead. The run highlighted a two-hit day for Lewis after he scuffled in the semifinal round against Ragland.

“Coach and them made me work off the tee, start all the way over,” Lewis said of his work since last Wednesday’s semifinal wins over Ragland.

Decatur Heritage found its sticks in the top of the seventh when Grayson Wakefield and Jeff Hunter singled to open the frame before Parker took a beanball to load the bases with nobody out.

“We’re a good hitting team. I hope you see that tomorrow. We’ve been a good hitting team all throughout the playoffs,” Decatur Heritage coach Steve Meek said. “For us not to hit, it’s not the stage. I’m going to give him the credit. He did it.”

“Jitters is so big on this kind of stage and stuff. I guess we kind of knocked the jitters off late. We didn’t have anything to lose. We were down 4-1,” Wakefield said.

Smith (14-2) struck out the next batter he faced and forced a pair of fly balls to Huckabee in right field to end the game. The final Eagle run came when Wakefield scored on Walker Jones’s sacrifice fly to right.

Scott Luker and John Gluschick shake hands following Sweet Water’s game one win Monday.

“We’ve got a great team. They fight and they don’t ever give up,” Gluschick said. “Prime example, we’ve got bases loaded, no outs and we got out of it.”

“He has done that every game I’ve seen him. He can go get it out there. He can really play,” Meek said of Huckabee, who caught four balls in right field including a highlight reel grab that robbed an extra-base hit. “That ball against 90 percent of the teams we play probably goes to the fence and clears the bases. He’s just a really good outfielder. He can go get them.”

The contest saw more hits than the teams’ first meeting, which came on March 3. In that game, Smith allowed no hits over five and two-thirds innings of work and struck out 11. Shaw only allowed four hits in the regular season tilt.

“He pitched against us March 3 when we played them. We saw him two weeks ago against Brantley and last week against Ragland. Then we saw him again today. He’s a quality pitcher,” Meek said. “There’s no rollercoaster with him. When he’s on, he’s going to pound the strike zone. If you hit him, you hit him. He’s a quality pitcher.”

“I think it helped a lot,” Gluschick said of the familiarity his team gained with DHCA during their March meeting. “I mean, they threw the same guy that we saw there and we did too. We threw our best when we went up there. We knew a lot about him. We weren’t coming into a game blind. It really helped a lot.”

Tuesday’s 10 a.m. game two promises to bring something a little different as each team will show the other a different starting pitcher. Wakefield will take the hill for Decatur.

“They haven’t seen our sticks yet and they haven’t faced Grayson this year, so they don’t know what he’s got,” DHCA’s Jackson Parker said. “He throws the ball well and consistently for strikes. We’re a lot better hitting team than we showed today. He struck us out seven times and we don’t do that.”

“We’ve seen good pitching: Sumiton, Brantley and we’ll probably see a great one tomorrow,” Gluschick said. “We’re just going to try to battle, win every at-bat at the plate. Whatever it takes, walk, hit-by-pitch. We’re going to battle at the plate and see what happens. We’re not going to get our self out.”

Diamond Dominance: Longhorns celebrate two titles in four days (gallery)

Photo of the Day: November 23, 2013

POTD-Hales-7510

Ryan Hale congratulates her brother, Wyatt, after the Marengo Academy Longhorns claimed the AISA Class A state championship by defeating the Restoration Academy Bulldogs by a score of 31-28.

James eyes ninth state championship

IMG_9990-1LINDEN — When his team steps onto the field at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Troy just before noon Friday, it will mark the 17th time Robby James has coached in the state finals.

James, who turned 64 last Friday when his Marengo Academy Longhorns downed Abbeville Christian in the semis, has led his squad to a 12-0 campaign and the precipice of a championship.

“This team has been a lot of fun to work with. It all started really last year. We ended up 7-4 or whatever it was and had a good season. We got in the playoffs,” James said of a 2012 Longhorn squad that ended its year at 7-5 after a semi-final loss to the same Restoration Academy squad it will face Friday. “I loaded the guys up on the bus and went to Troy and we watched the state game. We got out on the field after it was over and just made a commitment right there. ‘Hey. We’re coming back. We’re going to play on this right here next year.’ They’ve talked about that little meeting several times. But we’ve worked hard in the weight room and these guys have made a commitment to get back and we’re tickled over that. Now we’ve got to try to do something with that opportunity that we have.”

Marengo vs Abbeville gallery-4882The environment is nothing new for James, who won a state title in his first trip to the AISA finals 30 years ago this week when his Catherine Academy Colts beat the Dixie Academy Rebels 20-18.

Marengo vs Abbeville gallery-5464James went on to win state titles at Catherine in 1985, 1991 and 1992. He would then further cement his legacy by winning state titles at Morgan Academy in 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000.

“I’ve been there several times. I’ve been to 16 state championship games. This is a chance for these guys and it is not about me at all,” James said. “It’s about the boys and I’m just so thankful they’re going to get a chance to experience it. It’s a lot of fun and it’s something that you don’t forget. Every one of them is different.”

James would later go on to take his Faith Academy teams to the state finals on multiple occasions before taking the job as Marengo’s headmaster and coach in 2009.

“I’m proud of this team,” James said. “I’d put this one against any one of them I’ve had. They play hard and have got the heart that it takes to be a champion.”

That heart became evident to James and the Marengo faithful shortly after he began his tenure at the school.

“The first couple of years I was here, we had some athletes in place. My system is a little bit different than the one that they had. I think it took a little while, but I had some good teams there. We were in 3A ball and didn’t have a lot of depth. That was our biggest thing, we were smaller than most schools in numbers,” James recalled. “Then when they graduated, we ended up with a couple of years of no seniors. We even had a parent meeting about these same guys right here as eighth and ninth graders about if we were even going to have a varsity football team because we didn’t have enough older guys to have one.”

Marengo vs Abbeville gallery-5228The end result of that meeting was a conscious decision to allow the young crop of Longhorns to take their proverbial lumps.

“We’ve got guys that are 10th and 11th graders right now that have already started for three years. They are kind of veterans on the varsity football team, so they know what to expect,” James said. “Our boys play hard and they work hard. I’m proud to be a part of them. They represent us well.”

With 287 wins and eight state championships, James has mellowed considerably in his quest for a ninth title, leaving much of the yelling the often accompanies his position to Webb Tutt and other assistant coaches.

“Back when I was younger, it was more about being rah rah or whatever. Now, for me, I’m just thankful for all the memories that I’ve had,” James said.

James and his team will have the opportunity to make more memories Friday at noon when they look to win Marengo Academy’s first state championship since 2002.

Teamwork, desire create Marengo dynasty

What is happening down in Linden is nothing short of remarkable. The little bitty private school with the big tradition has found a way to keep winning.

Marengo Academy has suffered its lumps over the years and the rumors of its demise have often been exaggerated. Still, there are certain areas of Longhorn life that never seem to be fazed by everything else going on in the world.

Case and point: softball. The Lady Longhorns spent years on the verge of winning their first AISA fast pitch championship only to be deterred year after year in the title game at Montgomery’s Lagoon Park.

Todd Mathis finally helped his bunch break through that glass ceiling in 2010 with its first state championship win. As Mathis stepped away from a successful run and handed the reins to Danny Stenz, hardly anyone at Marengo batted an eye.

In the three seasons since, Stenz has continued to add to the legacy that Mathis, David Stokes and so many others helped to forge. Saturday, he led his team to a third consecutive state championship. All of this comes in addition to the junior high state titles Stenz won with MA softball and the state tournament runs he has made at the head of the girls basketball program in recent years.

What Danny Stenz is managing to do – he will tell you – has very little to do with him and has everything to do with the girls he feels privileged to coach. But what Stenz is doing is nothing short of astounding.

The little-known head coach who does this on the side and solely for love of the game or love of the girls or love of the school or, perhaps, the love of a hectic schedule, is starting to get some recognition.

Stenz earned West Alabama Watchman Coach of the Year honors in basketball. He also earned the Alabama Sports Writers Association AISA Coach of the Year award for the same sport.

While quantifying his career may not be entirely possible until he walks away for good, Stenz is working on a Marengo County Sports Hall of Fame caliber run.

Think about it this way. How many other coaches in the history of Marengo County have earned three consecutive state titles in any given sport? How many have led their team to a state title game in another sport? Now, how many have done it for little to no compensation?

Add all that to the fact that Stenz is not done yet and you have the makings of something potentially special.

Stenz will say that none of this is really because of him. But, the truth is, that Stenz is only a piece of a rare orange and white tapestry of volunteers, parents and a veritable traveling circus of supporters.

Currently, the school employs only one full-time coach: headmaster, athletic director and football coach Robby James.

Volleyball, boys basketball, girls basketball, baseball, softball and their junior high counterparts are all left to willing helpers like Stenz, Eddie Edwards, Mike Henderson, Larry Huckabee and so many others.

And, somehow, The Big Orange Stampede has just kept running downhill, picking up speed and avoiding every potential stumbling stone along the way.

They may have to face teams like Edgewood, which hired its softball coach from Central-Phenix City and routinely poaches athletic leaders with robust resumes. The enrollment numbers may not compare to those of their competition. And some years may be a little leaner than others in certain sports. But, at the end of the day, their rallying cry is their mantra and it says all they ever need to say: They are Marengo.

Marengo earns fourth straight state crown

The Marengo Academy Lady Longhorns won their fourth consecutive state championship Saturday at Lagoon Park in Montgomery.

The Marengo Academy Lady Longhorns won their fourth consecutive state championship Saturday at Lagoon Park in Montgomery.

MONTGOMERY — Marengo Academy (27-3) earned its fourth consecutive AISA state title Saturday night with an 8-2 win over Lakeside School in the final round.

“It gets better every year. I enjoy this more than anything,” Marengo Academy head coach Danny Stenz said of the dynasty the MA program has built. “I think the one thing I could pick out (that is key to our success) is desire. They all have the desire.”

Andrea Edmonds struck out 11 in the final game and issued her only two walks of the entire tournament to get the win.

“I thought as a freshman last year, she had a tremendous performance,” Stenz said. “This year, I think she was even better.”

Her dominant performance included striking out the side in the seventh to end the contest. She also homered in the game.

Seniors Katie Tucker and Reesa Holifield, sophomore Andrea Edmonds and junior Chandler Stenz each earned AISA Class A All-Tournament honors Saturday. Stenz earned the Most Valuable Player nod.

Seniors Katie Tucker and Reesa Holifield, sophomore Andrea Edmonds and junior Chandler Stenz each earned AISA Class A All-Tournament honors Saturday. Stenz earned the Most Valuable Player nod.

Marengo opened the scoring in the first when eventual tournament MVP Chandler Stenz walked, stole second, moved to third on an Anna Michael Crocker sacrifice bunt and scored on a passed ball.

“They’re very unselfish,” Stenz said of his team’s approach to the game. “If I ask them to sacrifice bunt and give themselves up, they do it. Every time I called a sac bunt these last two days, it was down.”

The Lady Longhorns added to the lead in the second when Edmonds stroked a two-run shot to score herself and Conner Etheridge.

Lakeside made it a ballgame in the third with a two-spot of their own. But Marengo scarcely slowed down, scoring in every inning on the way to the win.

Stenz walked to open the third, stole second, moved to third on a grounder by Crocker and scored on a RBI grounder by Katie Tucker.

Stenz struck again in the fourth with a two-RBI double to plate Etheridge and Taylor Barley.

Marengo added another run in the fifth when Etheridge hit a RBI single to score Reesa Holifield, who reached via her second double of the contest.

The final run of the game came when Barley reached on a bunt single, stole second and scored on a Stenz RBI double.

Edmonds wrapped up the tournament with 24 strikeouts over 26 innings of work and limited opposing teams to only eight runs combined over four games.

Edmonds joined Tucker, Holifield and Stenz on the All-Tournament Team. For Chandler Stenz, MVP honors came just one day after an ankle injury forced her from the first game of the tournament.

“She’s a tough kid. She’s a tough out,” Danny Stenz said, turning his focus to how his second baseman and leadoff hitter has developed this season. “She’s a dual threat really. She can lay it down. And she’s developed a little more pop in her bat.”

The win marked the final contest for six MA seniors who will graduate never having finished any less than state champions.

“I’ve had these seniors since they were in the seventh grade,” the Marengo head coach said. “I can’t even begin to tell you how much they’ve meant to the program. I’ve coached them since they were nine or 10 years old probably. They’re so competitive. They’re hard to beat.”

MA holds off Lakeside, moves to title round

MONTGOMERY — Despite the best efforts of Lakeside’s Chelsea Jones, Marengo Academy (26-3) pulled out an 8-5 win in its first game of AISA Class A state tourney action Saturday.

After a five-hour weather delay, Jones did her dead level best to keep Lakeside out of the losers bracket with a 3-for-3 afternoon that included a double, two home runs, four RBIs and three runs scored.

Jones also held the Lady Longhorns scoreless in five of the seven innings the teams played in the contest. The MA bats, however, were just hot enough in the third and fourth innings to help MA through to the championship round.

Alexia Johnson opened the third with a single before Taylor Barley looped a bunt over the head of the Lakeside third baseman. Chandler Stenz moved the runners up with a sacrifice bunt before Anna Michael Crocker walked to load the bases with one out. A Katie Tucker grounder erased Johnson at the plate and left the Lady Longhorns with the bases loaded, two outs and Reesa Holifield at the plate. On the first pitch she saw, the MA senior catcher hit her second grand slam in as many weeks to put the Lady Longhorns up 4-0.

The fourth saw Andrea Edmonds start the rally with a leadoff walk before giving way to courtesy runner Payton Stokes, who scored on a RBI double by Johnson. A RBI infield single by Stenz plated Johnson for the 6-0 lead. Barley, who reached on a bunt single for a second time, scored on a passed ball for the 7-0 lead. Crocker picked up the RBI on a grounder that scored Stenz for the 8-0 advantage.

In the bottom of the fourth, Lakeside began whittling away at the lead when Jones doubled to lead off the inning and scored on a Lindsay Hulsey single with two outs.

Jones then ripped a solo shot in the sixth inning to cut the deficit to 8-2. The bottom of the seventh saw Sydney Williams reach on a bloop single and Hannah Killingsworth leg out an infield hit before Jones blasted a three-run shot for her eighth homer of the season.

Other MA hits in the game included a first inning double by Stenz, a Johnson single in the fifth and a Crocker infield hit in the sixth.

The Lady Longhorns defeated Edgewood and Ashford Friday to get to the pivotal winners bracket game against Lakeside.

Edmonds struck out five batters in the win for MA, bringing her total on the weekend to 13 Ks in 19 innings of work. She is expected to take to the rubber again at 7 p.m. when the Lady Longhorns head into championship play against the team that emerges from the losers bracket. The Lady Longhorns are seeking their fourth consecutive AISA state title.