Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.|
Priceville seniors Lance Hughes, left, and Rand Hutchison flank head coach Shane Hopkins, who has seen his program go from one that didn’t have a home field to one that has won 23 of its first 28 games.
A growing tradition
After restarting baseball in 2002, Priceville has built a winning program
By Brooke Milam
PRICEVILLE — When Dustin Chambers was a child, he dreamed of playing baseball for Brewer High like his big brother Brad.
“I always wanted to be like him,” Dustin said, smiling.
Now a senior, Chambers is a lot like his older brother. He’s a pitcher and first baseman and wears No. 25 just like Brad, but he’s not in a Patriots uniform. Instead, he’s part of a core group of players at Priceville High that is helping a new high school baseball tradition progress — the tradition of Bulldogs baseball.
When the current players were in elementary school, Priceville High didn’t exist. The community had its own high school until 1972 when it folded into Brewer High, but Priceville reopened its high school in 2001. The baseball program hit the field in 2002.
Even in a short period, these players have found their niche as Bulldogs, bringing pride to the still-new Priceville program. Under the direction of former Hartselle High standout Shane Hopkins, the Bulldogs have posted winning seasons, earned playoff berths and established the sport at a school that didn’t have its own game field during its first year of play.
“We’ve laid the foundation,” Priceville senior pitcher/outfielder Will Stevens said. “Hopefully, we’ve given something to Priceville so that little kids growing up can have something to look forward to — wearing the ‘P’ on their head, as Coach (Hopkins) likes to say.”
Priceville’s first coach after the reopening in 2001 was Mike Henson, now the head coach at Class 6A Hazel Green.
Hopkins is in his fourth year as Priceville’s head coach, and in just five varsity seasons, the Bulldogs have experienced a fair amount of success. Priceville made it to the first round of the Class 2A playoffs in 2004. The Bulldogs then made the 2A quarterfinals in 2005 and finished 25-15. Last year, they posted a 19-15 record but missed the playoffs.
Priceville still seems on the move up. The Bulldogs are 23-5 this season with a group that Hopkins said he knew could win as soon as he met them.
“You could tell these guys were serious about baseball,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins said that even in a short time, the bar already has been set high for Priceville.
“The expectations are to go deep into the playoffs,” Hopkins said. “We were disappointed to not make the playoffs last year, and we’re really pleased with this season so far, but we understand the area games are the most important, and we have a lot of work to do.”
A sign that the school and athletics program has grown in size, Priceville moved up in classification to 4A this season. But Stevens said the measure for success is still the same.
“Our expectations are the same — we’re out to win and we’re out to be competitive,” Stevens said.
Hopkins knows first-hand how high school programs achieve success.
He said he draws heavily on his experiences of playing for William Booth at Hartselle High. Booth is the winningest high school coach in state history. Hopkins played for the Tigers before graduating from Hartselle in 1997. He then played collegiately at Southern Union in Wadley for two years and then at Montevallo.
Before taking the Priceville job, Hopkins served as an assistant coach at UAB for a season and had a one-year stint as head coach at Kingwood Christian Academy in Alabaster.
“Definitely, I learned a lot and try to model the program after things that Coach Booth does at Hartselle,” Hopkins said.
“He always believes in playing good competition and treating the players well in hopes that they’ll play like they’re treated.”
Hopkins said he’s taken a page out of Booth’s coaching book in regard to fundraising, enlisting community support and taking his players on trips like the Bulldogs’ spring break venture to Kissimmee, Fla., to play in the Disney Spring Break tournament.
“I feel like we’ve made a lot of progress in my four years here,” Hopkins said.
The Bulldogs were without a home field their first season, playing all away games that year.
Now they boast a beautiful on-campus field with signs of community businesses’ support lining the outfield.
“When I came here I found out quickly that this community loves baseball,” Hopkins said. “Our booster club and parent support is great. We wouldn’t be able to do the things we’ve done without their overwhelming support.
“There’s nothing I’ve asked them for that they haven’t helped us get.”
Priceville’s new indoor facility, which includes two batting cages, two throwing lanes, a concession stand and baseball and softball locker rooms, is in full use for the first time this season.
Hopkins said the facility has been two years in the works and was made possible entirely by booster club support and parents’ labor.
Hopkins also credits off-season workouts and extra time on the field with the continued growth of the program.
The Bulldogs lift weights three days a week in the off-season, and most of the players competed on an American Legion team together last summer. That squad won its district and advanced to the state tournament in Tuscaloosa.
“We were kind of at the point in the program where they just needed more games under their belt, and we’ve really benefited from their game experience this summer,” Hopkins said.
The extra work is showing.
Priceville has scored an average of 13.6 runs a game this season.
Junior Matt Croft is batting a team-leading .507 with 15 doubles. Chambers is hitting .439 with a team-leading 14 home runs.
Sophomore Kody Etheridge follows at .393. Senior Lance Hughes is at .361.
On the mound, Stevens is 4-1 with a 2.00 ERA.
“We’ve come a long way hitting, fielding, pitching ...,” Chambers said. “We’ve got a lot of talent this year, and everybody is hitting and doing what they need to do.
“Everybody is on the same track right now, and I hope it stays that way.”
Moving up in the baseball world
2002:Priceville plays its first games since restarting as a high school.
2003:Former Hartselle High and Montevallo standout Shane Hopkins takes over as head coach.
2004:Priceville makes the Class 2A state playoffs and falls in the first round.
2005:Priceville makes the 2A playoffs again and advances to the quarterfinals, finishing the year at 25-15.
2007:After 28 games, Priceville stands at 23-5 despite having moved up to 4A.
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