Southside to face Hartselle in semifinals
Sat. May 05, 2012 at 10:50 p.m. | By Nick Johnston Sports Writer
Alex Pondick and the Southside Panthers will be gunning for a spot in the Class 5A state championship series by beating Hartselle this weekend. (Photo by Wendy Kidd | Special to The Times)
It was two years ago when Southside traveled to Hartselle for a semifinal series in the Class 5A state baseball playoffs.
The Panthers were the state’s second-ranked team that year and, with a roster featuring power at the plate and dominant pitching, were the heavy favorite to ease into the state championship series.
Hartselle had other ideas. The Tigers shocked the Panthers by winning the series 2-1 and advanced to Montgomery, shattering the dreams of a Southside team seemingly destined for a state title.
Southside coach Blake Bone likely would love nothing more than to see his Panthers avenge that loss — and now they have their chance.
Hartselle defeated Muscle Shoals on Saturday to advance to the semifinals, where this time it will have to make the trip to Southside for a best-of-three series. At stake is a spot in the Class 5A state championship series in Montgomery.
Southside (25-15) reached the semis with a sweep of Pinson Valley on Friday in the quarterfinals and beat Curry and Walker in earlier rounds. Sixth-ranked Hartselle (37-20), meanwhile, has needed a third game in each of its series against Fort Payne, Cullman and Muscle Shoals to advance to this point.
Panther senior Caleb Butler remembers the trip to Hartselle two years ago.
“I just remember it was the craziest baseball park we had ever been to,” said the starting first baseman, who at the time was a reserve middle infielder and did not see any playing time during the series. “There were so many people, and the fans are brutal over there.”
Butler expects the Southside faithful to show up in droves Friday, as does fellow senior and second baseman Taylor Snow.
“I’m expecting a huge crowd,” said Snow, who didn’t join the Panthers until last season. “I know that Hartselle gets fired up. I know they’re going to be loud and we are too. It’s going to be action-packed, lots of intensity.”
Southside and Hartselle played earlier this season and the Tigers dominated, winning 16-0. But that was early in the season during a time the Panthers were really struggling to fire on all cylinders.
“The guys early in the year were making a lot of mistakes in all aspects of the game,” said Bone, whose team started 10-10 and have gone 15-5 since. “As the season has gone on, I think we’ve had some guys grow up and get some confidence. That’s probably why you see such a drastic change in results the past month or so.”
Confidence certainly isn’t an issue for Southside right now, especially after Friday’s series. The Panthers edged Pinson Valley 7-6 in 11 innings to take a 1-0 series lead before cruising 9-4 in the nightcap. Southside won the opener in dramatic fashion, as Blake Devine’s RBI double scored Snow from first for the game-winner in the top of the 11th. Andrew Fuhrman, the team’s ace, entered on the mound for the bottom of the 11th in relief of starter Alex Pondick and worked himself into a jam. He loaded the bases with one away before striking out two to end the threat and secure the win.
The game ended when Fuhrman froze a batter on a 3-2 curve ball.
“First off, Alex Pondick pitched his tail off,” Bone said. “He struggled early, and that’s kind of been his M.O. here lately. But he got better as the game went on and gave us a chance to win the game.”
As for making the move to Fuhrman: “If we got the lead, that was the plan,” Bone said. “He came in and made it interesting, but when it counted, he got the job done for us.”
Fuhrman went on to pick up the win in the second game and will be leaned upon to get another victory in the semifinals against the Tigers.
Hartselle will see a much different Southside team than it did two years ago, though.
“The last time we were in the semis, we had a lot of stars, we had the big-name guys,” said Bone, who saw several players make the 2010 All-State team and move on to play at the next level. “This team is kind of blue-collar — not a lot of big stars out there but they play hard. They believe in each other and they’re one of the hardest-working groups I’ve had. At practice, they get after it. They do what it takes to win.”
A win — or actually, two wins — is exactly what Butler, Snow and the Panthers are gunning for.
“That would be the greatest way to end my career at Southside,” Butler said. “I would kill to go out on top.”
Added Snow, “I’ve played baseball my whole life, and I’ve worked at it my whole life. It would mean everything to me.”