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May 21, 2014

Panthers, Eagles meet in final four

TIFTON — Four wins down, four to go. The Tiftarea Academy Panthers have reached the midpoint of the GISA Class AAA baseball playoffs. Next up for them are the Stratford Academy Eagles (22-5), who will be coming to Chula Friday for a doubleheader that begins at 4:30 p.m.

The Panthers (20-10), coached by Brad Porter, are now one step beyond where they ended in 2013, when Tattnall Square eliminated them in three games in the quarterfinals. Stratford, upon Macon, ended similarly. They also fell in the quarters to Pinewood Christian.

Though his team is aerating 11.5 runs per game during the playoffs and are holders of an eight-game winning streak, Porter is well aware that advancing any further will not be easy.

"There's no luck in getting to the semifinals," he said, meaning that everyone left in the bracket is good. The other two teams remaining are Southland Academy, a Tiftarea region mate, and Tattnall, the two-time defending state champion and team who knocked them out of the playoffs last year.

Stratford has had a good year of its own. "They're a good ballclub. They've won 11 straight games, they play good defense, have good pitching and good hitting."

The team doubly happy to be where they are. There is the semifinals part — "an incredible opportunity for our team," said Porter — and there is the part that put the games at Chula. That is what possibly excites them the most.

At the first of the year, he said, "we saw that if we win the region title, we got to host. That became our goal."

Sure enough, they won the region crown and have had the opportunity to play every game in front of the home crowd. That has been a tremendous bonus for Porter. "Our fans have been incredible." He noticed that the stands were packed on their side of the field for the Dominion Christian games last week and hopes that it is even fuller this week. Full enough, he said, to crowd out Stratford's crowd.

Don't be surprised if this is a defensive series. While both schools are more than capable of firepower, the pitching for both has been especially good during the playoffs. Tiftarea has given up eight runs during their four games, Stratford nine.

He is more than willing to play small ball. "We're going to try to put pressure on them," he said. That includes running and bunting when the situation arises. They have also been quite patient at the plate,drawing 22 walks in the postseason. Seven came in the 4-2 game over Dominion.

The Dominion series featured a wide variety of Panthers doing things to help the team. Porter said that no one individual was the hero. The top five hitters had 10 hits in the first game. In the second, the bottom of the order came through. He did point out, though, that he was pleased with Noah McMinn's performance. McMinn had four hits, scored three runs and drove in four more.

Of course, the pitching held up for them, too. Bo Vickers and Taylor Folsom each earned wins. "Taylor did what he's done all year," he said. "He got ground balls that we were able to turn into outs."

Two wins over the Eagles would put them in their first final since 2010, when they finished as runners-up to Heritage. The Panthers won state titles in 2006 and 2009.

If the series goes to a third game, Porter said it would be played Monday. He has no fears about who will take the hill, suggesting McMinn or Devin Paulk as potential starters.

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