When a high school baseball program hasn’t been to the GHSA baseball tournament since most of its current players were in preschool, it’s easy to understand the elation Southwest head coach Keith Young is feeling.
“We’re just excited to still be playing,” said Young, whose team visits powerful Pierce County on Friday in the first round of the GHSA Class AAA playoffs. “We’re happy for the chance, no matter who it is.”
The Patriots, whose 13-player roster shows only two seniors, haven’t been in this position since 2001. Ending the drought this season didn’t come without a little help.
It took city rival Westside upsetting Peach County in the season’s final week to lift Southwest into fourth-place in Region 2-AAA for the final playoff berth. A Peach County win would have tied it with Southwest at 8-8 in region play and left the Patriots on the short end of the region’s fourth tiebreaker, total runs scored in region games.
“We definitely owe some thanks to Westside,” said Young, whose team is 10-13 overall after starting 0-7. “Without that help, we’re done.”
Southwest’s rise to the playoffs stretches outside the bounds of this season. It began, Young said, in 2013 when he was an assistant and some of this season’s juniors were freshmen starters.
“They started learning how to play the game then,” said Young, who was elevated to the head coaching post last year. “The fundamentals they should’ve learned in middle school, we pretty much taught then. Now, they know what to expect and how to play the game.
“They’ve kept an interest in baseball and bought into the game.”
The Patriots were 2-17-1 in 2012 and improved to 7-13 last season despite going winless in their 12 region games. The 7-1 non-region mark, however, was encouraging.
“The one loss was against FPD,” said Young of the perennial Class A private school playoff participant.
Despite being winless through this season’s first couple of weeks against a schedule that included a toughened non-region portion, Young wasn’t all that discouraged. Even its 0-5 region start didn’t have him wondering.
“We were still playing better fundamental baseball than we had before,” the coach said. “We couldn’t hit ourselves out of a wet paper bag, but we were playing good, solid defense. I told the kids, ‘If we keep doing that, the hits will come.’ ”
They finally showed up in a 18-0 win against Westside to snap the region skid. A one-hitter by junior Adam Pitts followed, along with the program’s first win against Central since sometime in the 1990s, Young said.
The one- and two-run losses the Patriots previously suffered on defensive lapses were now wins, courtesy of the play in the field.
“We cut down our errors, and that started building confidence,” Young said. “Our fielding turned those close losses from the past into wins this year.”
Second baseman Mylik Parks, the lone senior starter, and Pitts were the Patriots’ all-region selections. Parks hit .447 in region games, while Pitts hit a team-leading .511. Each also has stolen more than 20 bases.
Second team all-region picks were catcher Markees Burton, first baseman Juwan Taylor, shortstop Timonte Lee, third baseman Antivious Jones and utility pick Tyree White. Burton is a sophomore, White the team’s other senior, with the others being juniors.
Taylor joins Pitts, who also has tossed a no-hitter, as the Patriots’ top starting pitchers. They’re accustomed to pitching in close games.
“We’re definitely a ‘small-ball’ team,” Young said. “We’ll beat you with singles and moving baserunners.”
The Patriots will need all they can muster against Pierce County (24-2). The Bears, who went 19-0 in winning Region 1-AAA, have lost in the state quarterfinals the past two seasons after being state runner-up in 2012.
“They’re one of the best in the state,” Young said. “But we’re playing, and that gives us a chance. Whatever comes -- win, lose or draw -- we benefit. It’ll be a great experience for everyone.”