Austin appears to be peaking
Black Bears in state elimination game against Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa
By Brooke Milam
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Austin High baseball coach Jake Miles found himself in a familiar position Saturday as he prepared for the Black Bears' first-round playoff matchup with Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa.
Miles and assistant coach Steve Meek traveled to Hartselle to scout the Patriots, who were playing a doubleheader with Cullman and Hartselle at Sparkman Field, and several Austin players met their coaches there to see the Patriots for themselves.
"The guys seemed really ready to go. They seemed like they wanted to get out there and play that day," Miles said.
Austin (20-21) will travel to play at Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa (36-17) in the first round of the Class 6A state playoffs Tuesday at 6 p.m. with the winner of the single-game elimination round advancing to a best-of-three series with the winner of Mountain Brook/Thompson on Friday.
Miles, who is in his first season as head baseball coach, knows the opponent well after spending plenty of hours preparing for games with Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa as a basketball assistant.
Austin's basketball team has beaten Hillcrest the past two years in the Northwest Regionals to advance to the state semifinals.
Miles and his players are looking to bring some of the same pride to the Black Bears' baseball program that Austin's basketball team has brought in its past postseason meetings with the Patriots.
"Nobody really talks about us as a baseball program, but we've just kind of talked about flying under the radar," Miles said.
Austin advanced to the playoffs for the first time since 2004 this season and Miles said that since none of the Black Bears baseball players play basketball, none have postseason, playing experience of any kind.
As for Hillcrest's big-game experience, Miles said two of the Patriots' best athletes are pitcher John David Smelser, a Jacksonville State University signee, and junior third baseman Wayne Dedrick, who are also starters on the basketball team.
"Any time you look into the bracket in 6A, there's never an easy game, but Hillcrest is pretty much a consensus among people I ask, as one of the best teams in the state," Miles said.
"But in these one-game rounds anything can happen. We're not a team that you would look at as intimidating, but we just chip away."
It doesn't always take a top contender to vie for a state title. Austin can draw confidence in the fact that Pelham, a fourth-seeded team taking the last spot in the then-region style format, won the 6A state title in 2004, beating out all upper seeds.
Miles said his team's nearly .500 record is not reflective of the way that Black Bears have played recently and that makes them a team to watch.
"We've had a lot of growth and improvement throughout the season," Miles said. "We were not playing our best baseball at the beginning."
Austin began 3-10, but Miles said coming on strong at the end of the season is a good indication that the Black Bears are peaking at the right time.
A six-game win streak in early April was instrumental in sending the Black Bears to the postseason.
Austin swept two games from 6A, Area 16 foe Sparkman, and strung together wins against Florence, Huntsville, East Lawrence and Butler during that time.
"It was at a time when we needed it most," Miles said. "We got hot at the right time."
Senior leadership bolstered the upswing, both on the field and in the dugout.
Seniors Jud Stephenson and Matt Kilgro are both back from injury, but Miles said they served as leaders even when they weren't able to take the field.
Senior center fielder Ty Chancelor, who has signed a baseball scholarship with Northwest-Shoals, is batting a team-leading .490 in 130 at-bats, including 11 homers, 17 doubles and 42 RBIs. Playing every inning of every game this season, Chancelor also has stolen 20 bases.
Senior Jack McCay is hitting .380 with five homers, 12 doubles and 10 stolen bases, while senior Laken Laughmiller has hit 10 home runs.
Sophomore first baseman Russ Sandlin also has produced, hitting .325 with 10 doubles.
"It's mainly been a confidence thing, and over the past few weeks, the seniors have really stepped up and the under classmen have followed right along," Chancelor said. "The beginning of the season was slow, but I think we're over that hump now and us making the playoffs proves that."
Miles said the tireless work of assistant coaches Meek, Andy Davis, Eric Mennen and Demond Garth has been important in motivating the team.
"They've really done an outstanding job pushing this team," Miles said. "We wouldn't be where we are, in the playoffs, without their work."
Miles said pitching has come on strong late, with senior Bobby Foster carrying the bulk of the load. Foster pitched a vital game with Sparkman during the late-season win streak, throwing a complete 10-inning game for the win.
"That was the game of his life," Miles said.
Sophomore Ben Bullard is 6-3 as a starter this season, striking out 50 batters while posting a 3.00 ERA.
"It's been a situation where our pitching staff in general has stepped up when we needed them most," Miles said. "They've done a nice job keeping us in games and letting their defense to play behind them."
Chancelor agreed that Austin's marked improvement spans all aspects of the game. It was enough to get the Black Bears to the playoffs and now they are hoping its enough to beat a foe familiar to the school.
Either way, Chancelor said he knows this team has made its mark on the Austin baseball program. "This year, making the playoffs, they'll have some momentum next year to start the season off right," Chancelor said. "And for me and the other seniors, it means a lot, too. This is the biggest game of my baseball career at Austin."
State baseball playoff pairings
The Alabama High School Athletic Association state baseball playoffs begin Tuesday. Here are the local teams involved.
Decatur Heritage at Woodville, 5:30 p.m.
ValleyHead at Athens Bible, 4 p.m.
Gaston at Speake, 4 p.m.
West Morgan at Westminster Christian, 3:30 p.m.
Cleveland at Hatton, 5 p.m.
White Plains at Addison, 4 p.m.
Sylvania at Danville, 5 p.m.
Holly Pond at WestLimestone, 5 p.m.
East Lawrence at Madison County, 6 p.m.
East Limestone at LawrenceCounty, 4:30 p.m.
Hartselle at Moody, 6 p.m.
Austin at Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa, 6 p.m.
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