Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer|
Todd Stephens has his West Morgan Rebels in the Class 2A semifinals against Hatton, which is coached by friend Brent Gillespie.
Friendly state semifinal
W. Morgan, Hatton coaches are opponents in the baseball playoffs, but good friends away from field
By Brooke Milam
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West Morgan High baseball coach Todd Stephens' cell phone rang Friday night just minutes after the Rebels pulled off a split with defending Class 2A state champion Ranburne in the state quarterfinals.
"It's probably Brent," Stephens said. "He said he'd call and tell me if they won."
Stephens was right — the call was from Hatton coach Brent Gillespie, who related the news that his Hornets had won 12-1 and 11-7 over Mars Hill for a quarterfinal sweep. And after West Morgan won the deciding game over Ranburne on Saturday 6-5, Stephens' friend became his next opponent.
Stephens' West Morgan Rebels (30-9) will meet Gillespie's Hatton Hornets (30-19) in the Class 2A state semifinals. The best-of-three series will begin Friday with a doubleheader at Hatton at 5 p.m. If a third game is necessary, the two teams will play Saturday at 2 p.m.
"Since we were 6-years-old, we've been playing against each other, and now we're coaching against each other," Stephens said, adding that he talks with Gillespie several times a week during the season.
"It's kind of fun."
Gillespie said the two are close, having grown up locally with a love for baseball that they have turned into careers.
"Naturally, the tie is baseball, but we're real familiar with each other's families, so we have a lot of different conversations," Gillespie said. "But the tie that binds has always been baseball."
Both are 1989 high school graduates — Stephens played at West Morgan, while Gillespie played at East Lawrence.
Gillespie, a pitcher/utility player in high school, went on to play at Northwest Shoals Community College, and Stephens pitched at Calhoun Community College.
As youth baseball players, both played for their fathers — John Stephens and O.Z. Gillespie — sometimes winding up as teammates on various all-star teams.
Both Stephens and Gillespie have been in their current positions for 12 years, and Gillespie said the similar backgrounds have led the two to similar coaching styles.
"We're probably very similar in the way we coach," Gillespie said. "We've both got pretty aggressive coaching styles."
Gillespie said he prefers not to play against his friends, but for a trip to the semifinals he'll make an exception.
In addition, according to Stephens, West Morgan has Hatton to thank for sparking its season.
Realignment placed the Rebels and the Hornets in 2A, Area 15 this year.
Hatton won the first two games of a three-game regular-season series 9-3 and 13-3, and West Morgan won the third 15-5.
Stephens said the win over Hatton gave his team the confidence and motivation for what has become a postseason surge.
"That was really the starting point for our playoff run," Stephens said. "That game kind of gave us a confidence boost for the rest of the year to know that we could beat a really good team like Hatton."
Hatton's Will Nichols has been scorching opponents at the plate. A senior who bats leadoff, he is hitting a team-best .525. He also is 8-3 on the mound for the Hornets.
Senior center fielder Nathan Berryman is hitting .381, and senior catcher Chris Hutto has blasted 11 home runs with a team-leading 62 RBIs this season.
Senior Matthew Dudley is 7-3 on the mound for Hatton and is hitting .350 with six homers.
For West Morgan, junior centerfielder Josh McAbee is hitting .477 from the lead-off spot.
Rebels left fielder Michael Clem, a junior, follows with a .454 batting average and six home runs, while senior utility player Daniel Korpi is at .403 with five homers.
Sophomore shortstop Seth Wallace is hitting .373.
On the mound for West Morgan, Rebels' ace Anthony Atemon is 11-3. Korpi is 6-3, and pitcher/third baseman Jacob Crowell is a perfect 9-0.
"I knew the athletes they had, and we all knew that West Morgan was the best 2A team that we'd seen," Gillespie said. "Even though we beat them twice, when they beat us, it was by 10 runs. We've got a lot of respect for them. It was no surprise to any of our kids to see West Morgan get this far."
For the two coaches, the conversation topics may be different this week, but the calls haven't stopped.
Stephens said that he chatted with Gillespie on Monday morning, joking about when fans should start setting out their chairs for a good seat for the semifinal games at Hatton's field.
As early as Tuesday?
Gillespie joked back that might not be a bad idea.
"He expects a big crowd and I do, too," Stephens said. "I think it's going to be a great atmosphere."
Baseball state playoffs
All series are best-of-three.
Class 2A semifinals
Leroy at Houston Academy, doubleheader Friday at 4 p.m. and single game Saturday at noon if necessary.
West Morgan at Hatton, doubleheader Friday at 5 p.m. and single game Saturday at 2 p.m. if necessary.
Class 2A finals
Game 1:Tuesday, 4 p.m.
Games 2 and 3:Wednesday, 4 p.m.
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