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May 29, 2014

Panthers two wins from state title

TIFTON — Brad Porter is not worried about today. His Tiftarea Academy Panther baseball team is in their first state final since 2010, but when asked about nerves, he said "our kids are fine."

"This is something we've discussed all year," he said. "This has been one of our goals."

And here they are, in the championship series, hosting the Tattnall Square Trojans today in a doubleheader starting at 4:30 p.m. Game three, if necessary, will be Saturday at 2:30 p.m. All games will be in Chula.

Tattnall is the team who knocked out Tiftarea in last year's quarterfinals, but don't call this a chance at revenge. The head coach definitely does not.

"It's a brand new season. Another chance to play an outstanding team."

Outstanding covers it well. The Trojans are twice defending state champs. They are 27-4 this year and have not been beaten in the state tournament.

They only lost one game in last year's tourney, Porter said last week. That one game was to Tiftarea. They went to a third game, where the two duked it out for a 70-minute rain delay and 14 innings before the Trojans won 6-2.

The Trojans are bringing another top team for the finale. Several names are back from last year. While Porter said they had good players up and down the lineup, a few particularly stood out. Taylor Ferringer, he said, "understands the art of pitching" with Cory Bartholomew as their No. 2 starter. Both started against the Panthers last year. Swinging the bats are Blake Simmons and Jonathan Ward, both very good hitters according to Porter.

Tiftarea is in the finals now, but the year did not start out that way. They are actually in the midst of a remarkable turnaround. The Panthers started the year with a win over Westfield, but dropped their next six. Since then, they are 21-4. So what changed?

"I think our team jelled, found its rhythm," said Porter. "All the credit goes to our young men. They've done everything we asked them to do." He believes there is another reason behind the resurgence. He said he and his squad have a common goal. "Win games and glorify God is our common belief. It's allowed to bond as a team."

 The team went on to win their second straight Region 3-AAA championship, allowing them to host every game of the state playoffs. So far, that has worked out quite nicely. Augusta Prep fell in the first round, 6-0 and 23-2, then Dominion Christian dropped both of their games at The Jungle, 13-4 and 4-2. That brought Stratford Academy to town last week for the semifinals.

The Panthers are not nervous now, but he said he believes the jitters did catch up to them briefly last week. Taylor Folsom was touched up for three runs in the top half of the 1st against Stratford.

The whole hoopla he said of being in the semis after being eliminated in the quarterfinals three years in a row got to them. "I told them that's not how we play. I didn't panic and they saw there was nothing to panic about."

By the end of the 3rd, Tiftarea was up 4-3. Stratford would tie it at 5-all, but the game would be untied on a two-run homer by Cade Marlowe, his second long ball of the day.

"Cade had two humongous swings. Hitting it over the centerfield wall is impressive and the second went even further." But it was not a one-man show, he said. "So many guys that did little things." Including Folsom, who pitched a complete game. Noah McMinn, Ethan Bryant and Greer Howard each had two-hit games. Each also drove in a run, McMinn being responsible for two.

With a win under their belt, they started game two with five runs in the 1st and cruised from there. Bo Vickers struck out seven as they only needed five innings to win 11-0.

Whatever the result of that Tattnall series, Porter is proud of what his team has accomplished.

"The seniors have stood up, we've had some excellent play and they have pulled some young guys along. Win or lose, we're grateful."

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20140726 John Gamble.JPG

John Gamble (right) is joined by John Reid at the Tiftarea YMCA Saturday.

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