The 11: Chelsea baseball celebrates seniors with drive-by ceremony

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

CHELSEA – For 11 Chelsea seniors, there was only one thing that mattered going into the 2020 season–redemption. After a remarkable playoff run to their first state championship series appearance in school history, the Hornets got swept by Cullman, which set the stage for those 11 seniors to work for nothing short of winning it all this year.

But they didn’t get a shot, at no fault of their own.

On Friday, March 13, the 2020 season was suspended due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, and soon after, the season was officially canceled.

“It was tough to hear,” Chelsea head coach Michael Stallings said. “That Friday March 13, we were scheduled to play Hillcrest in a doubleheader when Shelby County Schools announced everything was canceled. You knew at that point, that it was coming. It was only a matter of time before it was going to be everyone.”

Just a week more than a month into the battle against COVID-19, however, that strong senior class gathered together for possibly the final time for a drive-by celebration in front of a billboard that had a shot of the seniors together.

“All of that was put on by the senior parents. They organized everything. I didn’t know anything about it until yesterday morning,” Stallings said. “While they found out about the celebration before showing up, it was a nice surprise for the seniors to see the electronic billboard.”

The billboard, which rotates five different adds, is near the railroad track at the intersection of Shelby County 47 and 39. The senior parents came together and purchased one of the five advertisements to display a group pictures of the seniors together and celebrate their achievements.

“We wanted to send a message out to the community and supporters and have them drive by to recognize and celebrate everything they had done for the program,” Stallings said.

As people drove by the billboard on Monday, April 20, the players stood along the highway, while trying to practice social distancing as cars drove by honking and waving in celebration for their many accomplishments.

This year’s senior class included team captains Carter Federick and Jacob Boyle, as well as J.T. and Matt McGregor, Austin and Garrett Frye, Brady Morgan, Joel Sams, Hunter Anderson, Thomas Root and Jordan Smith.

And each of those 11 players were part of history.

Last year, en route to their first state championship appearance in school history, the Hornets had one of the more magical postseason runs the state had ever season.

Entering the postseason, Chelsea was unranked with an overall record of 18-11. But after finishing perfect in area play, the Hornets had confidence. They went on to beat Northridge, No. 6 Faith Academy, No. 1 Russell County and No. 2 Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa in the first four rounds to cement a spot in the championship series against No. 7 Cullman.

While the Hornets were swept in two games against Cullman, it was a historic run that saw Chelsea finish at 26-15 overall with an 8-4 record in the postseason against four of the top seven teams in the state.

“I wouldn’t trade last year for anything in the world as far as the baseball goes,” Stallings said. “I think there was a lot to be taken away from that experience. Our guys were hungry to try and get back.”

And this year, they looked well on their way.

Off to an 11-3 record and sitting at No. 1, Chelsea had won six of its last seven games before the season got started and felt as if it was in better shape this year.

“Ultimately, from a coaching standpoint, the pieces were there, so that’s tough,” Stallings said. “But the players were only worried about playing the next game. I thought we were built better than last year, but we had yet to even get into area play and that’s what we were looking forward to most.”

It was a senior class set up for a memorable season, but not getting one last crack at area play was one of the more difficult side effects of the season coming to an abrupt end.

“Last year, we went through area and didn’t lose a game. These guys wanted badly to do that again,” Stallings said. “That was one of their main goals. We were getting ready to play Calera for first area series, then had spring break, followed by Pelham and finish it up with Helena.”

Scheduled to play Calera that next Tuesday to kick off their first area series, the Hornets instead found out the season was suspended.

Hoping it would just be a week or two before they could come back, Stallings told the team that he didn’t know what was going to happen but that they weren’t playing that day and that’s all he knew at that point.

“It was tough,” he said. “We were just starting to figure stuff out. Our rotation was set, we had our fill in pieces and our lineup was getting really stable. We were 14 games in and we felt ready and our setup felt good for area play. We had a lot of confidence and had a good 1-2 punch on the mound at that point, which is a major key in area play.”

Instead, Stallings and the players never got to see what this special group of players could accomplish.

But as they were honored on Monday night, they were honored for much more than last year and this year, they were honored for what they were able to do as leaders.

“The sense of family is what I’ll remember most about this group,” Stallings said. “The idea of a brotherhood and a do anything for you attitude. It’s a special group of kids. When I tell you there were some really, really good kids, I mean they were really, really good. They were great in academics and jus all-around good. It’s a group that will be tremendously missed.”

He also admired their work ethic to do more than what was asked of them in order to succeed.

Around this group since they were in fourth grade as part of the Chelsea Baseball Club, it was sad to see it all end prematurely, but he knows what this group of 11 has done for the future.

“You hope for their kind of leadership with every group, and through the example they set, I think more and more of our kids are seeing that that’s what they want to do and become when it’s their time,” Stallings said. “They set a perfect example.”