TIFTON — The announcements of team, region and state awards joined steak on the menu at Tiftarea Academy’s baseball banquet at Tifton’s Elks Lodge Thursday evening.
Middle and high school squads were honored at the banquet, which came barely two weeks after Tiftarea’s varsity reached the Class AAA final four for the second straight season.
Coach Tim Harris announced the middle school teams, which are divided up into gold and blue squads.
“We kind of wallowed through a season,” Harris said. He jokingly thanked Valwood for finishing behind the Panthers in the standings. Harris praised his players and their parents for their hard work, then announced each individual player in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Only five were eighth graders.
After the middle school presentments finished, Tiftarea varsity head coach Chance Benson stepped to the podium to talk about his team’s season.
Benson issued his thanks to the booster club, Tiftarea headmaster Stacey Bell, athletic director Tim Hathcock, parents, Sarge Dorsey, his fellow coaches and, most importantly, “to my wife who has basically been a single mom the last five months.” Hannah Benson gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Grey, weeks before the season began. Mother and daughter have only missed two games this year, he said.
Tiftarea finished 20-7 in 2019. Benson said it was “three different seasons compacted into one.”
The Panthers won their first eight games, then hit what he referred to as “a little snag,” dropping three of five. Then, “At the very end we decided to sweep Deerfield.” The momentum carried into the Region 3-AAA final against Brookwood, which featured two Tiftarea comebacks. The Panthers swept their first two state tournament series before running into Dominion Christian in the semifinals. Dominion went on to defeat John Milledge Academy for the state title.
“It was a fantastic season,” said Benson.
Benson called players, one at a time, to the front of the room to receive certificates from assistant coaches Mikel Soliday and Rob Flick. The list began with eighth grader Matthew Malone and went one grade at a time until he reached the seniors.
Benson shared a special memory he had of each of the seniors. For Noah Copeland, Benson had worried when Copeland slid into third and popped up with what appeared to be a bloody mouth. It was actually clay from the infield dirt. Benson praised Brandon Prudhomme’s maturity in taking responsibility after a loss. With Carter Stewart, it was Benson’s initial frustration over Stewart letting the count go 0-2 — then following with a base hit up the middle.
Tiftarea is set to graduate nine players. Beyond Copeland, Prudhomme and Stewart are Nate Fortson, Render Robbins, Hunter Hartsfield, Will Matt, Colby Grant and Casen Royal.
“They accomplished a lot for our school,” said Benson, adding, “Their athletic ability is their second best attribute to their character off the field.”
Benson next revealed the GISA’s region and state awards.
Prudhomme earned the Region 3-AAA’s Player of the Year honors, a selection Benson said was unanimous among the five coaches.
First team awards went to Hayden Murphy, Grant, Fortson, Stewart and Royal. All-region honorable mention merits went to Ben Matt and Will Weeks.
GISA All-State recognition went to three Tiftarea players: Prudhomme, Stewart and Murphy.
Team awards were announced. Most selections were voted by team members.
Junior varsity honors went to Jayk Sailer (Pitcher of the Year), Brock Hammond (Defensive Player of the Year) and Adam McKinney (Offensive Player of the Year).
Benson said Sailer came a long way on the mound. Hammond started at catcher for most region games following a wrist injury to Hartsfield. McKinney, he said, “did a great job this year to get on base.”
For varsity, the awards went to Murphy (Pitcher of the Year), Will Matt (Defensive Player of the Year) and Prudhomme (Offensive Player of the Year).
Murphy is a freshman, labeled “a competitor” by his head coach. Benson described Matt as “kind of a Swiss Army knife” for his ability to grab anything hit his way.
Royal was the squad’s Scholar Athlete winner. Benson said his high school classroom average was 97.45.
The final team award was Panther Pride, which goes to who “best exemplifies what it means to be a Tiftarea baseball player.” Benson described the attributes of the player before revealing the winner was Hartsfield.
“Catcher, hitter, handyman,” said Benson. The wrist injury took a big chunk of Hartsfield’s season, “A tough avenue to lead from.” Had Hartsfield been selfish, said Benson, he would have attempted to play through the injury, rather than do what was best for the team.