That’s been the mantra. That’s been the theme for the 2015 Whitewater Baseball Wildcats.
Always Play For Each Other. The sign hangs in the home team’s dugout. It’s been there all season. It’s been the rallying cry. A source of encouragement to help navigate through the doldrums that come with every regular season, no matter how much you love your team or love the game.
But then, there’s the little descriptor underneath the sign’s acronym that really stands out — even after falling on the short end of a 2-game sweep against Class AAAA champion Buford this past Saturday.
It says: “When you’re not first, you always win.”
And there you have it, folks. That’s why after suffering losses of 5-0 and 3-1 in Saturday’s state championship series, there were no tears flowing. There were no helmets or bats or gloves being slammed into the dugout wall.
There was frustration, sure. You’d expect such, after coming “this close” to a state championship two years straight.
There were a few hung heads as coach Rusty Bennett gave his customary post game speech a few feet away from third base — the last post game speech of the year. Senior third baseman Brandon Bell’s hung head particularly comes to mind.
The Whitewater slugger had stepped up to the plate in the last frame of what would prove to be the last game of the season. He had runners on the corners. If he could’ve sent one over the fence, he’d have been the winning run.
As it was, he represented Whitewater’s last chance at erasing the frustration of being state runner-up again on their home field. He had, presumably, the last shot at extending the Wildcats’ state championship hopes — finally getting that monkey off their backs, and finally grabbing the elite status they rightly deserved.
Bell went down like a true champion — swinging. Full count, two outs. He whiffed at a pitch and the state title hopes disintegrated as Buford’s players and coaches stormed the Whitewater diamond.
But though Bell’s look was somber afterward, Bell’s coach didn’t seem sad at all.
“You know, that’s how you draw it up in the book,” Bennett said. “Game’s on the line, and that’s the guy you want in the box. He’s come through for us in those situations time and time again, but unfortunately for us it didn’t happen tonight. But he’s a great hitter, and he’s going to do well in college.”
In fact, there wasn’t much at all that seemed to upset Bennett about his team’s finale. Not even a bench clearing near-brawl in the bottom of the sixth inning when a Buford base runner got tangled up with Whitewater’s Jabari Richards after a run down. Several shoves were exchanged and both dugouts came to the rescue of their teammates.
Bennett chalked it up to that competitive fire of his ball club — that play-for-each-other, fight-for-each-other mentality that’s helped put Whitewater in four straight Final Fours and two straight state championship series in two different classifications.
“I don’t really know what happened with that mix up,” he said. “I just see it as two teams scrapping, and they’re getting after it out there. It’s easy to get a little heated in this type of a ball game, but we were able to control it and finish out the ball game, so it was all good.”
Despite it being the first bench clearing I’ve ever seen in a high school baseball game, nobody on the Whitewater side seemed surprised at the team’s response. Not because these are rogue players looking for a fight, but because of the natural fabric of this squad’s brotherhood.
“There’s not a team around here that’s closer than these guys,” said senior pitcher Jake Lee. “Just being able to be friends with these guys is better than any other career moment or highlight you could think of. And I think you can ask anyone of these guys and they’ll tell you the same.”
Lee was right.
Here’s what Kennsesaw State signee Ethan Gillis had to say about it: “We’ve just always been a happy group. Just our practices and hanging out with Coach Mask and the POs , it’s just been really fun. We’ve developed a very close team bond. We’re a really close knit team.”
Then there was the Furman-bound Richards echoing Gillis’ and Lee’s sentiments.
“We just know we gave everything out here, that’s why our heads aren’t down,” Richards said. “We’ve had a fun ride. Ever since I was a freshman here, I’ve seen us go to the Final Four every single year and excel baseball wise. This team, man, we have a true bond.”
And just in case you didn’t quite get the picture:
“We’ve played with each other all our lives,” said Tyler Burdette who will play at Piedmont College next spring. “That makes it easier to just know how each other is playing and we know that we all gave it our all to try and win these games. Knowing that helps deal with the loss a lot.”
So “APIVEO” is easy when you’re more like brothers than teammates. More like soldiers battling for each other in the trenches of a battlefield, than just mere dugout roomies.
This Whitewater senior class has done more than just help solidify the Wildcats’ place on the state — and even national — baseball map. They’ve laid a foundation. They’ve set an example for other teams to build on.
Lee said he expects his now-alma mater to win games next year, even with the voids in the roster that he and his other senior teammates have left behind. He expects them to win, “just because they’re Whitewater.”
On the field this past Saturday, one of the best teams in Georgia ran up against, perhaps, the best team in Georgia. And the losing team’s pitching and hitting and defense wasn’t good enough to win on the scoreboard.
However, Whitewater carried themselves, at times, as if it were the team which just finished dog piling and hoisting the state title hardware. Nobody likes moral victories, but sometimes you just can’t help but to gush about them — especially when the moral triumphs are as the one that embodies this team.
Remember the descriptor under the “APIVEO” acronym? “When you’re not first, you always win.”
This was my first stint covering Whitewater baseball, but I spent enough time around them to know that none of these players consider themselves first over their teammates. None of them consider themselves more important than the guy next to them, behind them or in front of them. In fact, I remember Bell defining APIVEO in his own words when I talked with him earlier in the season.
In his soft spoken way, he said it was simply, “Playing for the guy behind you.”
In this Whitewater brotherhood, no one dares to exalt himself above the next guy. Therefore, forget what the scoreboard says. According to the sign in the dugout, Whitewater wins.
Maybe that’s why Bennett said he wouldn’t trade this lineup for all the state championship trophies in Georgia.
“In some people’s eyes, they’ll say we came into that game against Buford as the underdog,” Bennett said. “But not in my eyes. I’ll play with these guys I’ve got every day. That was a heck of a Buford team we played (Saturday), but I’ll take this bunch and play against them every day. That’s how much confidence I have in them and this program and what they’ve built here. We’ll regroup here at the end of the year, and we’ll go to work for next year.”
Not just on getting to a seventh straight Final Four. Not just on getting to a third straight state title series.
Bennett, no doubt, will go to work instilling into the next group of Whitewater Wildcats what he found in this outgoing bunch to be the undeniable, chief ingredient to its success.
Gabriel Stovall is the founding editor of thecrescentbuzz.com. He can be contacted at email@example.com. If you’re on Twitter, follow him @GabrielStovall1, or follow our page @crescent_buzz.