GHSA Baseball Playoffs

Newnan bedeviled by powerful Tift lineup

by Chris Goltermann

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Jeffrey Leo

Newnan senior second baseman Derrick Nelson, above, had two hits and made a highlight-reel worthy play in the field for the Cougars, but it wasn’t enough to extend the 2013 season on Friday at Joe Pope Field against Tift County.

Even after 25-plus years in the dugout, consoling high school baseball players at the close of a season hasn’t gotten any easier for Kenny Morris. Especially not when the finality hits home.

Newnan’s 13-5 loss at home on Friday to Tift County marked a sudden end not just to the 2013 season. It also marked the final varsity games of Morris and more than a dozen Cougar seniors, including his own son Drew, who was an infant when his father took over the reins of the baseball program.

“Back then, the coaches also cut the field. So he and I have spent a lot of time out here,” said the Cougars head coach.

This year’s seniors, many of whom had played together prior to high school in youth leagues, lingered afterwards in center field, eyes sore, knowing that Friday’s game three was nothing like they had pictured after rallying to split Thursday’s doubleheader at Joe Pope Field.

“That’s what I told the guys. There’s only one team that gets to be happy after their last game,” said Morris, who closed a varsity career with 469 victories, a majority of which were won at Joe Pope Field over the last 16 seasons. “It was tough for our seniors. I told them, you have to look at the totality of the season, not just that one game.”

The Blue Devils (18-14) didn’t waste any time crushing those dreams to take the series 2-1 in its most lopsided game.

(To view photos from this game, visit http://photos.times-herald.com/mycapture and click on Sports for the Photo Gallery.)

Following two one-run decisions on Thursday, Tift pounded out 14 hits, including three homers while leading from start to finish. Newnan closed its season at 23-7 after finishing behind No. 2-ranked East Coweta in this year’s title race in Region 3-AAAAAA by just one game.

The visitors jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first before getting a pair of home runs from sophomore designated hitter Briggs Benson, the first of which on a two-out grand slam in the top of the fourth. Benson added a solo shot in the seventh while finishing with 5 RBIs as all but one Tift County starter had at least one hit in the victory.

Each of the three blasts, capped off by opposite-field shot by junior Alex Abbott to close a five-run seventh, landed on the other side of the fence in left.

Benson’s first was the most damaging, however.

With its lead trimmed to 3-1 after Newnan got a run back in the third, Benson greeted Cougar reliever Jake Kneidel the following inning by crushing a 3-2 pitch off the corner of the scoreboard in left-field following back-to-back walks to close starter Tanner Snellgrove’s outing, the first of which was intentional. The home tally on the board malfunctioned the rest of the game following Benson’s blast.

It was that kind of day for the Cougars.

Newnan clawed back to pull within an 8-5 deficit with three runs in the sixth, two on senior first baseman Jonathan Swenson’s clutch single with two outs. The hopes of completing the comeback, though, quickly evaporated when Benson led off the seventh with another blast to left.

From there, the Blue Devils tacked on four more runs with two out on four consecutive hits, the last of which coming on Abbott’s two-run blast against the Cougars’ third pitcher, senior shortstop Will Dreggors.

“I was proud of them tonight. We got behind early and we battled back and made it 8-5 to get back in the ballgame,” Morris said. “And then things didn’t go our way in the top of the seventh.”

Not much went right for Newnan, which committed two errors that led to runs in the first and had the intentional walk in the fourth backfire while trying to get out of a two-out jam with a runner on second.

Still, the Blue Devils, the fourth seed from Region 1-AAAAAA certainly shouldn’t be overlooked anymore after bumping off both No. 6 ranked Newnan and No. 3 McEachern. They’ve done it mostly with underclassmen in the starting lineup under the direction of first-year head coach Kyle Kirk, who previously led Clarke Central.

After going 3-for-3 in game one, Tift junior Will Reinhardt led the finale with a 4-for-4 effort while also taking the win on the mound while pitching into the fifth inning.

Newnan managed six hits against the Blue Devil right-hander, but never with the same success as Tift. The Cougars manufactured lone runs in the third and fifth on a fielder’s choice and a groundout to pull within 7-2 before adding three in the third.

Senior second-baseman Derrick Nelson capped off his career with a solid game, reaching all four times and finishing with two hits and two runs scored. He added the defensive play of the night when he ran down a grounder behind second base and fired on the fly to first for a putout.

Seniors Sam Buchanan, Rodney Tennie, Conner Dunn and Devin Henry also had a hit in the loss while Dreggors was hit by a pitch and scored in the sixth. Senior pitcher Brandon Dawson was responsible for Newnan’s lone series win in game two while winning both his playoff starts. Senior Thomas Sumner held the Blue Devils to two runs in the opener after winning his other playoff start.

“The thing about it is it’s just so sudden,” he said. “You’re rocking along and then ‘bam’ it’s over. When we look back on it, we’re gonna know we did some good things.”



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