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Hatton senior center fielder Nathan Berryman loads his gear on the bus as the team travels to Montgomery to play Leroy in the Class 2A baseball championship series. The first game is 7 p.m. Tuesday at Montgomery's Paterson Field.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Hatton senior center fielder Nathan Berryman loads his gear on the bus as the team travels to Montgomery to play Leroy in the Class 2A baseball championship series. The first game is 7 p.m. Tuesday at Montgomery's Paterson Field.

1 more hill to climb
Hatton, Leroy begin Class 2A baseball title series Tuesday at 7 p.m.

By Brooke Milam
bmilam@decaturdaily.com · 340-2460

HATTON — About an hour before Hatton High's baseball team boarded the bus for Montgomery and the state baseball championship series, coach Brent Gillespie went over some last-minute instructions for his team. They joked with each other in the huddle, keeping a lighthearted mood while preparing for the biggest games of their high school careers.

But amid talk of packing uniforms and eating out at restaurants down Interstate 65 South, the talk turned serious.

"I want to enjoy this trip, but remember there's only one reason we're going to Montgomery," Gillespie said to his team.

"We're going to play, and we're going to win."

The players stopped joking then. This was serious, and the Hornets were aware of that.

Hatton (32-19) will face Leroy (35-7) from South Alabama in the Class 2A state championship best-of-three series beginning Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Montgomery's Paterson Field. The series will continue with a game Wednesday at 4 p.m. and another at 7, if necessary.

Players said Monday was a typical day, save one detail.

"The end result is bigger this time, but every game is just another game," senior center fielder Nathan Berryman said.

The Hornets took batting practice at their home field one last time Monday afternoon, nothing out of the ordinary. Hatton players said they approached the situation just like any other game, preparing for the championship series, but their cars in the parking lot behind the press box were a reminder that this was a special week.

Every player's car was marked with "good luck" and "we love you" plastered across the side windows from fellow students.

It's Hatton's first trip to the 2A championship series since 2003, when Gillespie guided the Hornets to a runner-up finish.

The five seniors on the current team were eighth-graders then and were in the crowd watching as Hatton fell to Gordo in two games.

"I was there," Berryman said. "It's not a very good memory — it was bad. I'm hoping it will be different this time."

The good part of the memories from 2003 include the excitement that surrounds a championship run. The Hornets said they saw it in 2003 and they've seen it again this season.

"The playoffs have been stressful in a way, but we've had a lot of support — big turnouts at games," senior Matthew Dudley said.

Hatton will face a Leroy program that has championship experience, too.

Leroy won the 2A title in 2001 and also won the 2A football state championship this season, both coached by Danny Powell.

Hatton edged out West Morgan for the Class 2A, Area 15 title this year, before beating Cleveland Westbrook Christian, Mars Hill and West Morgan again in the playoffs to advance to Montgomery.

Leroy's path to the championship game went through Reeltown, Houston County, G.W. Long and Houston Academy.

Leroy hasn't lost a single game in the playoffs, sweeping all four opponents, while Hatton has only dropped one game in the postseason, splitting the first pair of games in a second-round series with Westbrook Christian.

Senior pitcher/shortstop Will Nichols said the third game of that series was the most pressure of any game his team has faced so far this season, and the Hornets responded with a 13-2 win over Westbrook Christian in five innings to advance.

"We stepped up, and we hit the ball well against Westbrook," Nichols said. "We've done that all year. I don't think there's a weak spot in our lineup."

Hatton has tested itself against a tough schedule.

Of 51 games this season, the Hornets have faced opponents 2A or 1A in only 22 contests. The rest were against schools of larger classifications. Additionally, nine of those teams made it to at least the second round of the state playoffs this season.

Hatton said in collecting 19 losses, the preparation for the postseason was worth the early-season struggles.

"The first of the year is just to find out who can play. The end is what matters and we've progressed every round," Berryman said. "We're playing our best right now."

While the Hornets count strong hitting and pitching among their strengths, the same can be said of Leroy.

The Bears scored a combined 25 runs and had 31 hits in a semifinal sweep of Houston Academy of Dothan.

"(Leroy) is very athletic, and they swing the bat extremely well, and I think a lot of the same things can be said about us," Gillespie said. "Hopefully, we can do what we've been doing all season and control what they've been doing."

The Hornets said that they've anticipated the trip to Montgomery all season. Confidence from seniors Nichols, Dudley, Berryman, Chris Hutto and Cody Cantrell has trickled down to the underclassmen. Don't call Hatton "the underdog" or a "surprise contender."

As the Hornets prepared to pull out of the school parking lot for the 184-mile drive to Montgomery, Nichols preferred to say the Hornets are "just now reaching our potential," and his teammates agree.

"If you asked me before the season started, I'd have said we'd be playing for the state championship," Dudley said. "I've had that in my mind even before the season started. I felt that all along."

On the Net

The Hatton Hornets had their final baseball practice Monday before boarding the bus heading for the state championship series against Leroy at Montgomery’s Paterson Field. For a slide show on the last practice, visit www.decaturdaily.com.

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