By Shannon Fagan, Sports Editor, Cherokee County Herald
Three years ago, Spring Garden baseball was about as far away from playing for a state championship as the road trip is to Montgomery.
The Panthers were coming off a 4-17 record in head coach Barrett Ragsdale’s first season, but since then, they’ve come light years forward.
Spring Garden almost reached the pinnacle this season, earning its way to the Class 1A state championship series for the first time in school history. The Panthers (26-11) finished runner-up to defending state champion Sweet Water, but even more than that, they’ve put the recent past behind them in the rear view with sights on the future straight ahead.
“I remember having a conversation with (senior left fielder) Riley Austin after that (4-17) year,” Ragsdale recalled. “I was throwing to him. He was about to go to a basketball camp, and we came in early and we were like ‘Man, we’ve been so close to beating some really good baseball teams. We just had a few errors here and there.’ He was like ‘Yeah, we’re real close, but we’re going to get over that hump, Coach.’ I don’t know if he remembers that, but I’ve thought about that conversation a lot with this group.”
The Panthers were a remarkable turnaround story during the 2018 high school baseball season. That turnaround wasn’t something the Alabama Sports Writers Association ignored when it came to choosing its all-state teams.
Ragsdale was selected as the Class 1A Baseball Coach of the Year.
For Ragsdale, the Coach of the Year honor came as a “shock.”
“I fully believe that is a team award, a players’ award,” Ragsdale said. “It’s humbling. There are too many people to list, but it’s definitely not an individual award. I just point toward the kids. They’re the ones out there making the plays. All I do is sit on a bucket in the dugout.”
Ragsdale may say all he does is sit on a bucket in the dugout, but he’s done much more than that. Among other things, he’s gotten the Panthers to believe in themselves.
The week before spring break, the Panthers lost to Sand Rock 5-0 in the Cherokee County Tournament. Following the loss, Ragsdale made the Panthers refocus for the stretch run.
“I started preaching to them at spring break ‘believe.’ That was our motto moving forward. Believe in the process. Believe in getting a state championship. Believe you belong,” Ragsdale said.
After winning the Area 10 championship, Spring Garden opened the state playoffs by sweeping Coosa Christian, 12-6 and 15-5. They rallied for a second-round victory at Marion County (7-5 and 9-8), then outlasted third-ranked Athens Bible (3-5, 7-5, 12-2) and South Lamar (6-1, 1-5, 13-3) to secure their first-ever title series berth.
“I really noticed guys starting to gel together. They believed they belonged in the postseason and believed they could make a run at it, and then we found ourselves in Riverwalk Stadium in Montgomery,” Ragsdale said.
“It’s put some excitement in Spring Garden baseball. It’s got some kids excited about the future. They’ve seen that goal’s attainable. We want to get back there again.”
In addition to Ragsdale’s Coach of the Year honor, the Panthers had two first-team selections in Austin and senior third baseman Austin Slayton.
Senior Austin Finch earned a second-team spot at second base, while sophomore Colby Slayton claimed a second-team selection at shortstop.
In all, 11 area baseball players from The Herald’s coverage area earned all-state recognition.
Austin batted .488 with 21 walks, three doubles, a triple, 36 runs and 18 RBIs. Austin Slayton batted .440 with eight doubles, six walks, five triples, four home runs, 33 runs and 44 RBIs. Finch batted .372 with a double, a triple, six walks, 18 runs and 24 RBIs. Colby Slayton batted .430 with 14 walks, seven doubles, four triples, 36 runs and 32 RBIs.
Staying in Class 1A, the Cedar Bluff Tigers (16-12) had a pair of second-team selections in junior first baseman Ross Johnson and junior third baseman Ethan Teague.
Johnson batted .478 with 18 walks, 15 hit by pitches, nine doubles, three home runs, 29 runs scored and 17 RBIs. Teague tallied a .369 average with nine walks, eight doubles, four home runs, 20 runs scored and 24 RBIs.
The Gaylesville Trojans (11-7) had an honorable mention in senior catcher Devin Bentheimer. Bentheimer batted .511 with 10 walks, seven doubles, 18 runs and 18 RBIs.
Class 4A Cherokee County (15-12) and Class 3A Piedmont (23-12) had a pair of selections each in their respective classes.
Representing the Warriors as a first-team utility player is senior Jy Lockridge. Junior pitcher Ethan Johnson earned a spot on the second team.
Lockridge, a Snead State signee, batted .432 with 16 walks, 10 hit by pitches, eight doubles, two triples, seven home runs, 29 runs scored and 30 RBIs. Johnson went 6-3 on the mound this season, including a no-hitter with 70 strikeouts and a 1.75 ERA in 52 innings.
Selected from Piedmont at first-team designated hitter is senior third baseman/shortstop Taylor Morrow. Morrow, a University of West Georgia signee, batted .406 with 26 walks, eight doubles, seven stolen bases, five home runs, 39 runs scored and three RBIs.
Junior Logan Pruitt earned a second-team spot at pitcher. He compiled a 9-1 record with 47 strikeouts and a 2.98 ERA in 58.67 innings last season.