May 5, 2009
By Steve Hancock''s count, the Heritage Academy baseball team was 2-52 in Mississippi Private School Association AAA games the past three seasons.
Still, the veteran coach was optimistic heading into his first season in MPSA.
His goal was to help the players change their mind-set and, in the process, win some games.
The Patriots had to sweat things out in the final weeks of the season, but they finally took care of business Thursday, clinching a postseason berth.
Heritage Academy (11-14, 8-10 MPSA Class AAA North) will play Hillcrest Christian at 6 p.m. today in game one of a best-of-three series.
Game two will be at 6 p.m. Thursday in Columbus.
It''s the first time Heritage Academy has advanced to the playoffs since moving up in classification, and the first time since 2002 when it was a Class AA school.
"They have played hard throughout this period and they have a good taste in their mouths going into the playoffs," Hancock said. "Hillcrest is well coached, has great pitching, they''re good defensively, and they put the ball in play."
Despite the lack of success the past few years, seniors Mac Thatcher and Jesse Painter believed in themselves and that the program could reverse its fortunes.
"I knew we had a chance, I just didn''t know how far we could go," said Thatcher, who plays shortstop. "Every person said they wanted to make playoffs. We didn''t talk about it, we just set it for ourselves."
Painter, who pitches, catches, and plays in the infield, said the coaches helped set the tone by pushing them in practice not to accept anything less than winning and to win one inning at a time.
"Our attitudes have changed," Painter said. "Last year, they knew before they got out there they were going to lose. We didn''t feel that way this year."
Constant practice has helped the Patriots improve. Coaches throughout the season have credited Hancock and assistant coaches Tyler Hunter, Bruce Branch, and Will Spann for revitalizing Heritage Academy''s program.
Heritage Academy nearly squandered an opportunity to make the playoffs. It split a marathon doubleheader against Starkville Academy in Columbus late in the season.
A sweep of that twinbill would have clinched a playoff berth, but Hancock didn''t tell his players. He also didn''t tell them after the team lost two games at Magnolia Heights and the first two games of a regular-season ending three-game set against Washington.
A one-run loss in Thursday''s first game of the doubleheader set the tone for Painter, who pitched a complete game to help the Patriots earn a 9-2 victory and clinch a playoff spot.
"I think we play a lot better under pressure," Thatcher said.
Said Painter, "I just went out there and did my best. Coach Tyler talking to me before the game helped me out a lot."
Hancock likes how his pitchers match up against Hillcrest Academy''s hitters. He said he is curious to see how his hitters fare at the plate.
Painter will get the starting nod on the mound today, with senior Cole Vaughan the likely starter for game two.
No matter what happens in this series, Thatcher said he and classmates Painter, Vaughan, Arrington Rhett, and Lyon Brown have "left their footprints" on the program.
"I think we have changed the mind-set of a lot of kids, even the little kids," Thatcher said. "Just going out and thinking you can win every game and playing hard as you can is important."
Said Painter, "Coaches have been beating on us to think one inning at a time and one out and a time and one pitch at a time and not to think ahead.
"At the beginning of the year we thought we had a chance to go to the playoffs. We are kind of surprised, but we kind of expected it."
Now the Patriots are trying to finish the drill.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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