Daily photo by Emily Saunders|
Athens coach Thad Prater, right, works with player Clay McDonald during practice. The Golden Eagles have won their first 11 after going 3-39 last year.
A golden turnaround
After suffering through 3-39 season, Athens Golden Eagles have won first 12
By Brooke Milam
firstname.lastname@example.org · 340-2460
ATHENS — For the Athens High Golden Eagles, this baseball season is a different ballgame.
After collecting only three wins last year, Athens took the field in its season opener with a clean slate and a new mind-set.
"This year things are different," senior Brad Reasonover said. "Instead of 'We're going to lose this one,' it's, 'We're going to win this one.' "
And if the opening of the season was any kind of foreshadowing for the Golden Eagles, it's going to be a good year.
Athens blasted three home runs to open the season with an 8-1 win over Clements on Feb. 19 and the Golden Eagles haven't slowed down. With homers by Reasonover, Colin McMurry and Zack Brock setting the pace for a new year, Athens has won its first 12 games after finishing 3-39 last season.
"After those home runs in the first game we just started feeding off each other," said catcher/shortstop Todd Pepper, a junior. "Now we're actually preparing to win instead of just playing baseball."
Athens' wins this season have boosted the team's pride. The Golden Eagles have faced and beaten all the Limestone County schools except Tanner.
The string of wins has put the Golden Eagles on a roll as they prepare to compete in Class 5A, Area 16, which includes Decatur, Muscle Shoals and Russellville.
"The wins have given us confidence to bring into the area games," McMurry said.
An undefeated start three weeks into this season has almost erased the memory of last year's struggles and paved the way for a successful season.
"I think they're excited about playing," first-year Athens baseball coach Thad Prater said. "They want to play and that's a big difference.
"When you get to losing, you get to feeling defeated. They were a good team last year — they were just losing by two or three runs here and there."
Athens was 0-4 in the preseason last year and started the regular season 1-1 before hitting a skid that left the Golden Eagles winning just two of their final 40 contests.
Given the task of mending old wounds, Prater inherited the reins this year from Jamie Hill, who returned to Bob Jones High in Madison with an interest in getting into administration and is listed as an assistant baseball coach this season under first-year Patriots coach Ryan Hall.
A former baseball coach at Tanner and Ardmore, Prater guided Athens softball from 2004-2006. He was The Daily's Class 4A-6A all-area softball coach of the year in 2005, the same season his team finished third in the state tournament.
After last season, one of his best players graduated — his daughter Kristina, who is now playing for Alabama-Huntsville. Prater said that the Athens administration knew he'd be interested in getting back into baseball if the opportunity presented itself.
He didn't have to wait long.
Prater, who is also an assistant football coach at Athens, had gotten to know many of the athletes who now make up his baseball team on the football field.
And as one of the two-sport athletes, Pepper said that Prater's addition to the baseball diamond has sparked the program.
"Playing football, I've known Coach Prater. Plus with his reputation in softball, I was looking forward to him being our coach," Pepper said.
Prater said that upon taking the position, he found good attitudes despite last year's struggle for wins. He immediately began building upon the positive mind-set.
"We started in the weight room as soon as football was over, and that's helped them some with getting confidence built up," Prater said. "That was big for them, I believe."
Four starters back
Four starters return from last year's varsity team, including seniors Reasonover, Brock and Leon Graves, along with junior Drew Hill.
"We're trying to do some different things," Prater said. "When these guys graduate, they want to leave behind something positive. We're trying to get to the state championship level like the Hartselles and the Cullmans. We're not there right now, but that's what we're aiming for."
With hot bats to start the season, hitting has remained a strength for the Golden Eagles.
"We put the ball in play a lot better than we did last year," Reasonover said.
And Prater can attest to that, as eight Golden Eagles recorded hits in the first game alone.
When asked who his hitting leaders were for his team so far this season, he said, "Everybody. Everybody is hitting the ball."
Athens is also enjoying depth on the mound — another aspect that the Golden Eagles said they were missing last season.
Left-handed pitcher McMurry is 4-0, pitching in his first varsity season after sitting out with injuries the past two years.
"(McMurry) has done very well for us. I'd like to see him move on to play on the college level after he graduates," Prater said.
McMurry said Athens' record last season didn't hold him back at all from taking the mound this season. Instead, it was motivation.
"I knew I wanted to come back on because last year I didn't have a chance to show myself on the mound," McMurry said.
"I knew we'd be successful this year."
Pepper said even the dugout is a happier place to be. And maybe it took a season like last year to fully appreciate this year's success. Either way, the Golden Eagles are on a roll.
"We've got more team support," Pepper said, before adding with a smile, "It's a lot more fun to win."
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