By Gabriel Stovall
FAYETTEVILLE, Ga. — Make no mistake about it. State championship is the chief Whitewater goal.
But don’t think for a second that the Wildcats (20-4, 13-1) didn’t want to close out Troup County in proper fashion in Friday night’s Region 5-AAAA championship game at Whitewater High School.
And closing the Tigers out is exactly what Whitewater did, as junior Miles Jones’ belt to the left center gap brought home Brandon Bell in the bottom of the fifth inning which proved to be the deciding score in Whitewater’s 4-3 win over Troup (22-4, 12-3) in a game that could’ve been a preview of the Class AAAA championship series.
It was the second straight region championship Whitewater has captured. Last season it won the Region 4-AAAAA crown by beating Starr’s Mill.
“We really wanted to do this two in a row,” said senior pitcher Jake Lee. “I mean, we’re still a fairly young school, but for us to make an impact as players and as a senior class and to do it back-to-back, it definitely meant a lot to us.”
Lee’s sentiments were echoed by winning pitcher and fellow senior Colby Taylor.
“I think this gives us a lot of momentum going into state,” Taylor said. “And this is the first time in school history that it’s been done back to back, so this is special.
It was Taylor getting the win after pitching five solid innings to set up Lee, the Georgia Tech signee who took the mound at the top of the sixth inning and fanned three of Troup’s last six hitters to pick up the save.
It left Whitewater coach Rusty Bennett raving about his pitching staff, specifically Taylor. Bennett said he almost elected to start Lee, his ace pitcher after coming off of a 13-4 loss at Troup in Game 2. But the second year coach said he’s glad he listened to his heart instead of his head.
“When we got through with the game (Thursday), I thought that I was gonna let Jake start,” Bennett said. “I asked Jake if he could start the game tomorrow, and him being the competitor he is, he said yes. But I kept feeling in my gut, you know, Colby Taylor’s fresh and he’s been a big bulldog for us all year.”
And Taylor exceeded expectations.
“I was hoping to get four innings out of him, and we got five,” Bennett said. “When we pinched hit Miles Jones, I told them that Miles was going to get the hit and give us the lead and Jake’s going to close us out. But as far as I’m concerned, Colby Taylor’s the player of the game, the pitcher of the game and the reason why we won the game today.”
No argument from Lee regarding his coach’s assessment of Taylor’s mound presence against the No. 2 team in the state according to maxpreps.com.
“Man, Colby was unbelievable,” Lee said. “Me and Colby have been playing together since 11 years old, and I haven’t seen him pitch like that in a while. He had some adversity and battled through it. But he’s gonna be great.”
Part of that adversity Lee was talking about came almost immediately after Whitewater took an early 1-0 lead in the top of the first. Taylor worked through a rough stretch in the bottom of the first where Troup scored three straight runs — one on a double of that drove a run in, then the next two on a bunt and a ball that glanced off the catcher’s leg.
But according to Taylor, those Troup scores were the best things that could’ve happened to his confidence.
“I had a few butterflies just knowing that this was the region championship game,” Taylor said. “These were the most innings I threw all year. But probably around the third inning after they scored was when I settled down. I knew I just needed to keep on pitching.”
Taylor held off the Tigers long enough to allow Whitewater’s small ball strategy to take over. It started with Tyler Burdette’s sacrifice fly in the second that allowed Avery Roth to score. Then Tyler Doanes knocked one to the gap between Troup’s third basemen and shortstop which tied the score at 3.
It stayed that way through the fifth inning when Taylor made Troup hit three ground balls to Bell at third base which he easily turned into outs. That’s when Jones’ heroics at the plate and Lee’s brilliant close out performance sealed things for the Wildcats.
After the game, Bennett gathered his team and told them that the series win was huge because it gave them a taste of what the Wildcats might expect in a state playoff atmosphere.
“At the beginning of the season, we made goals, and our number one goal was to win region,” Bennett said. “We did that, but I’ll tell you what. We beat a very good ball club over there. Troup is a phenomenal team and I’m pretty sure they’re going to make a run at state. Hopefully we’ll be able to make a run and see them again down the road.”
But having Region 5-AAAA supremacy will do nothing, Bennett says, to cause a let down in preparation for a state title run.
“Our confidence is gonna stay there,” he said. “Rankings mean nothing right now. I tell my team that where we’re ranked at the end of the year is all that matters. But it’s cool for them to see their name there, and they respond to it. This team kind of plays with a chip on its shoulder. We’re going to work on some things and fine tune somethings, though, and get some guys some rest and we’ll be ready to go (in the first round of state) next Friday.”