Chelsea head coach reminisces on special run with senior class

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

HARTSELLE – Walking off the field with the Hartselle Tigers piling up in celebration behind them was a dejecting feeling for the Chelsea Hornets baseball team on Friday, May 14, but focusing on that heartbreaking moment leaves a large hole in another remarkable season on the diamond.

Following a loss in the state championship series in 2019, the Chelsea Hornets set out in 2020 ready for redemption with the majority of the roster back. Then, COVID-19 struck and shut down the rest of the season and their shot at claiming the title.

But alas, in 2021, Chelsea returned to the field with its top two pitchers back and eyes set on another run to the state championship series.

“For us, the ultimate goal was to get to Montgomery and win a state championship,” head coach Michael Stallings said. “

Chelsea put together another strong run this season on the heels of their top two starters on the mound—Connor Ball and Brock Hill—as well as this year’s most improved player Parker Szush.

Alabama commit Connor Ball finished his career with close to 300 strikeouts at Chelsea after throwing 128 for the Hornets this season. (For the Reporter/Cari Dean)

Their run led them to a regular-season area championship and a deep playoff run with three consecutive series wins.

Sadly for the Hornets, they came up one series short of advancing to the state championship series for the second year in a row after a 10-2 loss to Hartselle on May 14 in a third consecutive game three.

That, however, isn’t what defined Chelsea’s season after the Hornets took down two of the state’s best teams to earn the matchup against another top-10 opponent in Harselle.

One of those series wins included taking down defending state champion Cullman, who Chelsea lost to in the 2019 title.

The Hornets won the opening game of the series 5-4 and then lost the second one 7-1, which led to a game three with the season on the line.

Chelsea, however, stood tall and picked up a 7-2 victory in the rubber match to advance to the quarterfinals against Gardendale.

“For us, whenever we went to game three against Cullman at home and had the success that we had, that gave our guys a lot of confidence moving forward into Gardendale,” Stallings said.

It also marked the start of a strong stretch for Szush, who stepped up as the surprise player of the season for Chelsea this year.

A confident pitcher on the mound with a lot of emotion, Szush led Chelsea to a game-three win against the Bearcats and set himself up for a strong two-week stretch.

The Hornets went on to lose game one against Gardendale 1-0 after failing to give Ball run support on the mound, but they bounced back with 18 combined runs in the final two games of the series to face elimination again and not waver.

Szush stepped up in game three for the second weekend in a row to lift the Hornets to the semifinals of the playoffs in another clutch moment.

“I don’t think any coach on our staff expected we would get what we got out of Parker Szush,” Stallings said. “He has improved so much as a pitcher and put in a lot of work in the offseason that paid off. I was really proud of him and how he performed this season.”

After totaling two appearances and 1/3 of an inning the year before, his work ethic paid off this season by becoming the third pitcher in the rotation and winning seven games with a 7-2 record.

“He has come leaps and bounds from last year and pitched really well against some great competition,” Stallings said. “He was the reason our season lasted as long as it did.”

With the series win against Gardendale, Chelsea advanced to the semifinals against Hartselle and was one step away from getting back to the state championship.

Then, after winning the opening game of the series 2-1, the Hornets had two chances to get one win.

Hartselle, however, responded in a big way with wins of 5-1 and 10-2, as the Tigers chased both Hill and Szush early in the final two games and capitalized on opportunities, while Chelsea ended up with several unlucky breaks to keep them from capitalizing.

“When we ended at Hartselle, it was tough man. It was really tough to look at those guys. It was emotional,” Stallings said. “I just told them how proud I was of them. I’ve always been real with them. It’s not in my nature to sugar coat and make something out to be that it’s not. I told them the impact they’ve had on this program is the legacy they’re leaving behind, which is a legacy of expectations.”

And that’s what fills in the hole to the rest of the season and the career that this year’s eight seniors help—a new expectation.

Not only did most of this year’s senior class help Chelsea advance to the semifinals with a first-round sweep and back-to-back game-three victories against two of the state’s top teams, but most of them were a part of the 2019 team that went to the championship series and a team that started 11-3 last season.

“They have raised the bar and been a part of a great runs since they have been here as far as great success,” Stallings said. “That leaves an expectation for our younger guys to make it to the playoffs and to make a deep run themselves.”

All this team knew was winning and competing at the highest level, which the young players returning have now seen as well.

“That was their expectation because that’s all they’ve known,” Stallings said. “As a coach, that’s the greatest legacy they can leave is raising the bar. Those guys have done a great job in that. I’m really proud of them. Their goal was to be the best they could be for us. As a head coach, that’s all you can ask.”

Stallings said this year is a reminder of what hard work and dedication can do, which was his takeaway from the team as a whole heading into the 2021 season down eight seniors.

“We were very proud of our guys and how they went about their business this year. Just sticking to their goals and seeing a lot of those through,” he said. “The amount of work and preparation that goes into the grind of the season and for them to not lose their focus, it’s all you can ask for as a head coach.”