‘Backs against the wall:’ Helena sweeps Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa in dramatic fashion, will face Cullman for 6A state title

By GRAHAM BROOKS / Staff Writer

HELENA–After the dog pile celebration cleared from the pitchers mound on Thursday, May 11, Helena head baseball coach PJ Guy used the terms “thankful,” “proud” and “special” to describe his team and the way they fought to sweep defending 6A state champion Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa in a pair of tight extra-inning games in the AHSAA Class 6A semifinals.

It wasn’t easy and at times it even seemed bleak that the Helena Huskies baseball team would complete the sweep of Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa, but that’s exactly what happened, as the Huskies won game one 2-1 in eight innings and game two 5-2 in nine innings to set up a trip to Montgomery for the state championship game.

“The kids responded so differently tonight than they have ever when they played in these types of games,” Guy said. “I’m just so proud of them because we really had our backs against the wall in both games tonight. Just the way they overcame it and tried to stay the course and they just had each other’s back and they did it tonight. I’m just thankful just being a coach and being a part of it.”

Helena used strong pitching and got out of some tough jams to earn the sweep.

Game 1. Helena 2 – Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa 1 (8 innings)

If you follow baseball and understand that when two great pitchers from opposing sides step on the mound, then you know each and every run becomes precious.

That was exactly the case in game one of the best-of-three semifinals series as Helena threw senior ace Riley Davis, while Hillcrest countered with sophomore Garrett McMillan.

Davis has been lights out in the playoffs. With a 3-0 record and three straight complete games, he’s almost been unhittable and in game one it was a similar case.

After a pitchers duel ensued for the first five innings, Helena broke the scoreless tie in the bottom of the sixth inning with a go-ahead sacrifice fly by Nick Ragsdale to score Brooks Brophy to put Helena up 1-0.

Davis needed three more outs in the top of the seventh inning to once again record a complete game shutout.

Davis gave up a leadoff single and then a sacrifice bunt moved the runner to second to put the tying run in scoring position. However, Davis got Walt Bailey to pop out in the infield for the second out of the inning.

Down to their final out, Hillcrest had one last opportunity to try and extend the game and Darian Pope did just that, hitting an RBI single to tie the game and breakup Davis’ complete game shutout.

Helena couldn’t walk it off in the bottom of the seventh inning so the game went into extra innings and with it, came the end of Davis’ night. Davis pitched seven innings on 95 pitches while scattering six hits and received one earned run and also broke a state record.

“Until he (Davis) gave up a hit there in the seventh inning he had not given up a run in the playoffs and I know we broke the state record for consecutive scoreless innings so that’s one of the amazing accomplishments,” Guy said after the game. “He’s just done what he’s always done for us for three years and really, we didn’t think he had his best stuff today but he just went out there and was himself and competed and he’s just such a competitor. He went out there and gave us a gutsy performance and he deserved to get the win, but he didn’t, but he gave us a chance and we’re proud of him.”

Guy would hand the ball to Landon Green in the top of the eighth inning and he did his job, getting a 1-2-3 inning in relief.

After pitching an incredible seven innings, Davis also did it with his bat. Davis hit a lead-off double in the bottom of the eighth inning to put Helena in business.

Hillcrest then walked Sam Praytor to set up runners at first and second with no outs. In an attempt to move the runners up 90 feet, Brophy laid down a bunt but when he did, Davis was thrown out at third trying to advance.

With one out and runners once again at first and second, Nash Adams stepped to the plate and the dramatics ensued.

Adams blooped a single down the third base line that barely grazed off the Hillcrest third baseman’s outstretched glove to fall to the turf and in the process, Praytor came around to score from second to give the Huskies a dramatic 2-1 walk-off win.

Guy explained the final sequence after the game.

“We took a chance, because right when he made contact we thought it was a hit,” Guy said. “That third baseman was so tall though that when it hit off his glove it would’ve been a double play if he caught it but we were taking a chance and had some great at bats before that. Nash just got enough of the ball to just get it over his head.”

Game 2. Helena 5 – Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa 2 (9 innings)

After finishing a dramatic game one with a walk-off win, one would think it would be tough to top, but game two provided much of the same excitement.

In the top of the first inning, another senior would step up for Helena. Praytor stood in the batter’s box with one on and one out and hit a towering two-run home run over the centerfield wall to give the Huskies the early 2-0 lead.

After that, the bats went quiet for both teams as neither could push a run across over the next several innings.

Helena starting pitcher Troy Cordrey had a solid outing throwing six innings allowing just three hits and five strikeouts with no earned runs.

With a 2-0 lead going to the bottom of the seventh inning, Helena needed three more outs to punch their ticket to Montgomery, but costly errors ultimately extended the game.

Green came in to relieve Cordrey to try and record the final three outs but gave up back-to-back walks to start the bottom of the seventh.

The next batter for Hillcrest hit a ground ball to Helena first baseman Trevor Bell and as Bell tried to throw to second, the throw was off-line and the error resulted in a run scored for the Patriots.

Down 2-1, Green then threw a wild pitch that allowed Dylan Lewis to score from third to tie the game 2-2. With runners now at second and third with one out, any sort of ball hit to the outfield or a base hit would be a walk-off win for Hillcrest. Incredibly, Green struck out the next two Patriot batters to send the game to extra innings and got out of the jam.

Neither team could push a run across in the eighth inning and in the top of the ninth, Helena broke the scoreless tie. Guy had a feeling his team would break through after getting the game to extra innings.

“When we got in the dugout and they tied the ball game up, I told the guys ‘you know what? All the bad stuff that happened there, to me what was the best thing that happened was that they had a guy at third base with no outs and it looked slim and we found a way to get those three outs,’” Guy said. “To me that just showed a lot of character and mental toughness when it got so bad for the guys to overcome that. I said ‘why don’t we just forget about what happened there with the bad stuff and let’s feed off the positive stuff that we got out of that inning’ and we tried to feed off that inning.”

Ultimately, Helena fed off the positive energy and scored the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth inning off a sacrifice fly from Jake Busby, followed by a two-RBI single by Davis to score Ragsdale and Bell to put the Huskies up 5-2.

In the bottom of the ninth inning, Helena shut the door as Green forced Hillcrest into a ground out and fly out and after a two-out double, the final out came in the form of a fly out to center field.

A massive celebration ensued on the pitchers mound as a packed ball park cheered on Helena as they will now make their second trip to Montgomery for the state championship in three seasons.

The Huskies have a roster full of seniors who will try to earn a state championship and Guy said the group has had goals in place all along.

“They’re just special. They had a few goals this year and one goal was to go undefeated in area and one was to win the Hoover Classic and we did that,” Guy said. “Then, kind of as the year was going on a random goal they had this year was to win 100 games as a program and we knew about a month ago that for us to get there we have to get to the state championship and low and behold we’re at 98 wins as a program. It’s going to take winning the state championship series to get that 100th win and so that was just some of their goals and I’m proud of them for that.”

Helena will face Cullman in a best-of-three series for the 6A state championship. Game one will be Thursday, May 18, at 7 p.m. at Paterson Field in Montgomery.

To view more photos from the game, visit Shelbycountyphotos.com.