“You Remember That Time….?” Paying Tribute to My Final Chattahoochee Valley Baseball Team: The JUCO World Series 4th Edition, The 2018 Pirates

A lot has transpired since closer, Chris Brown, closed out the 2014 ACCC Championship with a dog pile-inducing pop up to James Cunningham to send Chattahoochee Valley to its first of four NJCAA JUCO World Series in a five year span.  There was a repeat in 2015 with an injury laden pitching staff that saw a core group of freshman arms lead the Pirates to a 3rd place World Series finish.  Then there was the 3-peat with all of those sophomores grown up and taking the Pirates to the Championship Series Finals of the May Classic in Grand Junction, Colorado.  And after a stellar 2017 season that included another Southern Division title, the 2018 team came back bringing the thunder, completely dominating the ACCC, as Sawyer Steele emphatically fist pumped and chest flexed with an ACCC Tournament Championship game ending strikeout to send the Pirates on a fourth trip to the JUCO World Series in five years.

There was a completely new staff brought in after losing long time assistant coach, Dash O’Neill, to his well deserved first head coaching job at Georgia Highlands College.  Additionally, former players and right hand men, Mitch Shelby, earned his masters and had to move on from coaching into the real world, while Alex Duhaime moved on into the world of finance.  This led me to finding an absolute pearl of a staff in Hunter Vick and Bill White, without whom, we would have never accomplished what we did.

Oh, and I was diagnosed with multiple pulmonary embolisms in my lungs that forced my medical retirement after a 20 year coaching career at CVCC.

However, this is all about the 2018 Pirates and what they did for the school, themselves, the community.  Everything they accomplished, they earned.  Everything they did, occurred because they paid the price to get it.  They were special.  They were good.  No, they were great.  And they were virtually unbeatable.  And 100% of the credit goes to those young men that wore the Columbia Blue and Gold!

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Paying tribute to this team is easy, as they were not only incredibly good, but were also a team full of incredible personalities.  Every season has it’s own story and inside that story are dozens and dozens of chapters that put together who that team is.  Of course, this team is no different, as they created memories for both me, the coaches, and themselves that will last longer than the hardware we collected for our right ring finger.

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This team gelled from the beginning.  Make no mistake, it took work, and lots of it.  But you could tell from the beginning of fall practice we were going to be special.  We could pitch, we could hit and we could defend.  We really had no weaknesses as far a junior college team goes.  The depth was strong, the chemistry was amazing, and these boys played and worked their tails off.

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As you see the title of this article, “You Remember That Time…..?”, I would like to reflect on some of the fond, funny and fantastic moments that defined the 2018 season.

Opening weekend at East Georgia College is a good place to start as the season began with a bang.  Literally, with fireworks in our opening series against East Georgia.  After a solid whipping of the Bobcats in Game 1, EGC put one on the Pirates with plenty of sideshow shenanigans.  However, it showed me immediately who our team was, as we didn’t back down, while keeping ourselves under control and going on to win the series the way you should – with class and with talent.  But, we can thank ole Icer for getting the rig hot from the get go!!!

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Casey Cobb started the season off continuing in his All-American ways, but what I remember from most from that opening weekend is how Isaac “Rigs” Phillips set the tone of this team with simply his presence.  You remember that time Rigs got a hit in game 1 and did a bat flip and turned to the opposing dugout and told them it was going to be a long weekend and then promptly slipped and fell on his face rounding first base?  That’s Rigs in a nutshell.  There will never be another Isaac Phillips.

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After a series win against East Georgia, the Pirates headed to Panama City, where they once again took 2 out of 3, beating Bevill State and Andrew College.  We played average, but found a way to win in spite of it.  You could see the grit and toughness in this team, as we played from behind and came from behind in both wins.  This was the coming out party of our bullpen, as Joe Gahm, Hunter Phillips, Charles Crosby and ole reliable Sawyer Steele dominated when the starters struggled.

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We had an intense practice they next week and the day before we left for a weekend road trip, good ole Greck slept through practice. You remember that time I made Greck sit behind the L-Screen the entire session of BP while I preached to him and gave him a life lesson after he was late to practice.  One of my favorite players and families of all time, but I’m sure I got my point across.

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The Palatka tourney at St. John’s River may have very well been the weekend that introduced the 2018 Pirates to the JUCO world beating 3 nationally ranked teams.  That never would have happened without a 7th inning go ahead 3 run homer against Gulf Coast by Devine.  His knack for clutch hits showed up all year long.  But that blast kick started the weekend with wins over Miami Dade and Broward College.

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With a solid 4-2 start, a little adversity hit on our way to St. John’s River.  I got sick and had to get off of the bus in Valdosta.  It was the first practice and/or game that I had missed in my entire career.  As it turns out, they didn’t need ole Coach T, as they won 3 of 4 on the long weekend.

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This was when we saw the first sign of how good Rankin Woley was going to be.  His efforts named him NJCAA National Player of the Week.  Chase Patrick and Gahm were dominant.  Jack Lipson asserted himself as a top tier catcher.

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But you remember that time when we didn’t have a healthy shortstop in Palatka, and Rankin dropped a 4 mph pop up that got about 12 feet in the air??  How about that time Kale lays out on an outstanding play at third and then promptly throws a 95 mph fastball into the parking lot and nails somebody’s SUV???

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You remember that time when Rankin gave Barbee the speech about neurons???  Well, he got it and we battled through a few rough days and went back to work, rolling of 3 straight against West Georgia Tech twice and Faulkner University.  During that week of a few rough days, although not very fun in the moment, but a good memory for us all the rest of the season was the time I absolutely lit into Berg during a team meeting.  I honestly don’t remember what I even said, but I assure you the rest of the team did and boy did they remind him, me and each other of it regularly.  Poor Berg.  I love you, buddy!

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A poor Barbee, 2 years in a row, with a freak season ending injury.  The definition of a good ole boy, Barbee was a workhorse and for 2 straight years, just as he was about to jump into the starting rotation, he gets hurt on a freak accident.

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All season long, Hunter Phillips, Charles Crosby, Evan Baber and Carson Hicks were the life of the party in the dugout.  You remember that time (really all of those times, like literally, every single game), with those four guys yelling after every hit, “Barrels, party of 4.”  Another hit, another party call.  The lines that came from that quadruplet were classic.

I can remember at a certain cross state school, as we were pounding a certain team by a lot of runs, AFTER the opposing school was talking much trash, that Huntbo, Chuck, Baber and Big Duke combo began in on a season long table call.  After every hard hit ball, it was, “Barrels. Party of ___.”  And ole Baber yelling “Yink” every time a certain player through a baseball.  We won and won big.

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In my opinion, the biggest moment of the season was a 3 game skid in which we lost twice to Tallahassee while holding leads late in the game and coming home and getting shutout by Andrew.  That set the stage for one of the most memorable 3 month runs I have experienced as a coach at CVCC.

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We got it going immediately with the final 2 games of the pre-conference season, run ruling Gulf Coast 15-4 behind the arm of Joe Taylor, with the middle of our order going some thing like 15 for 20 and then we were introduced to Jacob Menders with a 6 inning, 9 punchout performance against CACC.  Johnny D came up big again with another clutch homer.

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Joey T is and was such a hard worker and leader.  The kid always has a smile on his face and never has a negative thing to say.  He embodies everything you want in son, father, husband and baseball player.  Outside of some outdoor decorating at The GR, of course…..

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Johnny D.  Now that’s a funny guy.  He played every position on the field and was as clutch as they come as a hitter.  But what I will remember is how hard he would laugh when I would do my Pirate Radio emcee impersonation.  I must have done it 30 times and he laughed just as hard as the first time I did it.A12Z2524

We started finding ourselves and that was bad news for everybody else.  We were pitching, we were hitting and we were defending.  But boy did we start hitting!!!

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We opened conference play oddly enough with the second best team in the league in Wallace-Dothan.  Dothan is always tough.  But 2 shutout wins at home by Cobb and Cole Ganopulos set the tone for the series and the year.  We split the next day, but earned the 3-4 series win in convincing fashion.

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G-Nop was money all year long, actually all career long, going undefeated in his CVCC career.  There are so many highlights, but his no hitter in a crucial series against Alabama Southern tops them all.  However, the most impressive may have been that 2 hit shut out of Wallace-Dothan in an early season matchup of the 2 Southern Division powerhouses.

Cole Ganopulos, All-American, Conference Pitcher of the Year, and total clown.  Driving down the interstate in the Silver Bullets, Coach White comments that the Bullet sits at 90 mph and G-Nop replies, “Yeah, kind of like me.”  Classic!!

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How about literally everything Sawyer and Enright did!!!  You want to talk about characters that made it fun to come to the park everyday.  They made coaching worth it.  You remember that time Enright was hitting against Thomas University and was really struggling (keep in mind that Sawyer and Enright are best pals) and Enright finally got a piece of one and Sawyer yells out, “well, at least you ticked it.”  That saying has stuck around The Lake ever since.  I love those two guys!

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These Pirates went on to win 16 of their next 17 games, going 15-1 in conference play during that stretch.  The record wasn’t as surprising as how dominant the scoring differential was.  During the wins over Coastal-South, Central Alabama, Bishop State and Coastal East, the Dirty Pirates outscored their opponents by a whopping 105 to 13.  We simply wouldn’t let the opponent breathe.

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Remember when a former team member started calling Joe Gahm, “Gahmbo”.

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The Coastal-East series was memorable for a lot of reasons.  There was the infamous rainout, but show up for 8 hours game.  Losing 2-1 at home in the series opener.  But that series was the wake up call, as the Pirates finished off the series win with ole Red hitting about .800 on the weekend.A12Z0047

How about Kale Ledford?  This guy literally told the coaching staff that he was going to be the hitting coach.  And he believed it.  But I guess you can do that with a personality like his and his ability to hit.

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The Enterprise series came next and was memorable for a lot of reasons.  One it was a conference series, two, they are pretty dang good, and three, it was our 5th conference series in a row without a bye and we were 14-2 going into this series.  We were tired, and it showed.  The bats were slowing down and just the general energy level was down.  We played hard, for sure, but you could tell we needed a few days off after this one.  But one guy wasn’t tired, and that guy was Jason Rooks, who hit about 14 homers in the series on his way to being named the NJCAA National Player of the Week.  There were a lot of “Let’s Gooooooo’s” that weekend

You remember every time Rooks hit a homerun, and there were a bunch of them, and every time he came back to the dugout, he rips his helmet off, the team surrounds him and he yells to the top of his lungs, “Let’s goooooooo!!!.”  Freakin’ Rooks!!

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Next up was Coastal-North, who was very good and handed us our first series opening loss as Casey pitched his tail off in a 2-1 loss.  However, we rebounded nicely winning the final 3 games, as Chase Patrick almost made history in throwing back to back no hitters after G-Nop no hit the Eagles in game 2.  A swinging bunt single was the only blemish on his line score.  Patrick dominated all season long, tossing shutout after shutout as one of the top freshman arms in the country.

You remember the time when Chase Patrick left some piece of equipment of his at the field every single day of the season?  Guess what…it’s still happening!!

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A ho hum win against Point University ushered in the return of leadoff hitter and game changer, Tre Kirklin, who missed the entire first two-thirds of the season with a broken hand.  Tre gave up a season of eligibility to help us win the ACCC Title and get back to GJC.  And it was like he never missed a beat.  He came out swinging and never stopped, but his selflessness to come back and help is what will forever be engraved in everyone’s mind.

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Next came a series sweep of Selma in which the Pirates outscored the Patriots 43-8.  Literally everyone joined in the fun, as everyone got in on the action over the weekend sweep.  At this point, we started getting banged up, as no question, the best 3B in the league, Jack Copley had to sit until the post-season.  You remember that time Cop was actually healthy for longer than a week?  No, me either.  But, boy could he pick it and swing it.

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But we had several guys step in and step up throughout the year, as knick knack injuries hit the team.  Baber stepping in Cobb’s spot, Patrick into Menders’ spot.  How about Allison filling in, along with Greck during the April stretch with injuries piling up.  It was always, next man up and they did their jobs.

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The LBW series was great as always, facing my good buddy and long time colleague, Steve Helms.  After winning game 1 to clinch the ACCC Southern Division crown, the Saints got the best of the Pirates.  After Helms was unable to make the return trip for the Pirates last day in The Ghosts on Sophomore Day, he continues to remind me that he will always be the last head coach in the state of Alabama to beat me.  Classic Helms and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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The best part of the day, even though it was a loss in game 2, was when Coach White didn’t want to use any more pitching in a game that was going to be an LBW win.  He told Greckel to get loose to go into pitch and ole Schwartzy got as mad as anyone I’ve ever seen because he couldn’t pitch.  Schwartz was one of the top hitters in the league, but was hell bent that he, not Greckel, was going in to mop up the game.  He swore up and down how good he was.  Well, neither went in, as Carson “Big Duke” Hicks finished things up for us.

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But as it turns out, Davis is a 92 mph arm and ain’t too shabby on the mound.  Who knew?  But I can tell you this, no one in that dugout will ever forget that moment.

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What about the time EJ Ranel, who in my own error, did not play nearly as much as he should have, goes out on the final day of the season and drops 3 bombs against LBW to finish of the season and put the Ghosts and The Lake to bed for 2018.  Not 1, not 2, but 3 bombs.  And I’m not talking about fence scrapers.  These things were hammered!!!  Yeah, I messed up on that one.

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Well, the Pirates went into the Conference tournament as the favorites again, and rolled through with little drama.  A sound whipping of Calhoun led to the second best game of the tourney, as Big Red, Kale Ledford beat Shelton State with a 9th inning walk off homer to send them to the semi-final game against conference rival, Wallace-Dothan.

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In the meantime, Jay Meuse had secured the shortstop job months ago, but a funny thing happened in April, Jay got hotter than a firecracker on the 4th of July.  The stretch run and post-season belonged to Jay.  Conference Tourney MVP.  You could not get him out and he played shortstop like Derek Jeter.  Between Jay, Rigs and Lippy, we have had the best 7-8-9 hitting combo on the planet.

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I have the utmost respect for Wallace and Coach Mackey Sasser, but he would say the same thing in that we wanted to beat them and we wanted to make a statement.  18-2 – Statement Made!!  Menders dominated the Govs and we went on a bomb fest all night long en route to 18 hits.  But the entire tone was set when Tre stole home in the first inning to let them know the Pirates came with their “FOOT ON THE GAS!”

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Facing a tired Wallace-Hanceville team in the finals, Evan Baber pitched the game of his life in leading the Pirates to a 10-5 World Series clinching win with the afore mentioned Sawyer Steele punchout to induce chaos on the mound in the form of a Pirate dog pile.

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Things didn’t go as planned in Grand Junction, as we went 0-2 in 2 one run losses, but make no mistake, we had the best team in the country and I will argue that point until the day I die.  It just wasn’t in God’s plan.

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I’ll never forget these guys and this season.  They made my final year at the helm as good as season could possibly be.  It’s one of the years you wish would never end and the players would never leave.  They gave me memories and a going out party made for a king.  My appreciation for them is immeasurable.

Guys, you were the best.  PERIOD!  I miss all of you that have moved on and for those returning sophomores, as happy as I am to watch you play, I miss so badly being able to coach you.  I know you are in good hands, but you will always be my guys.

The words thank you do not do justice for how I feel.  If there is a stronger saying than I love you, I would use it.  But, I don’t know one, and I love you all!

P.S.  Other things I will never forget…

Cable playing all of the crazy sound effects at The Lake

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Winning the football Olympics at Coastal-East on the game that never was

Rigs every single day

“Closing Time”

The Ghosts

The Lake

All of the field work

Coach Enright

Bill’s jokes

Watching the team gel from August 10th throughout the season

Everyone trying to get under Rankin’s skin

Kale getting the worst sunburn ever fishing with Steinbrenner

Sawyer fishing till midnight with Steinbrenner

Everything that Blade, Adrian and Estes did for me and the team.

The relationships and daily conversations that had nothing to do with baseball

Cole grinning like a moron during everyone of my team talks

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“You better pray you have insurance.”  Probably the most classic and memorable non-baseball moment of the entire season.  I won’t go into details, but you can ask Rankin and Moseley about that one.

Sincerely,

AT