May 13, 2014 11:06:34 AM
Brent Harris had a feeling about the 2014 Victory Christian Academy baseball team.
In seven years as the squad's coach, Harris has seen plenty of talented players come through the program, but he quickly recognized something was special about this season's group. That's why Harris wanted to be honest with his players in an effort to help bring the best of out of all of them.
"I told them from day one that this is by far the most talented team I have ever had as a coach," Harris said. "We had legitimately 15 good ballplayers. I have a lot of ballplayers who would have played on other teams. We had a lot of bench. We had a lot of pitching. Our outfield was really good."
Victory Christian defeated Conecuh Springs Christian 14-2 on Friday and New Life Christian 10-1 on Saturday at Tuscaloosa Christian in Cottondale, Alabama, to win the Alabama Christian Education Athletic Association championship. The title is believed to be the first in the history of the baseball program.
Harris said he gave his players his assessment about halfway through the season. He hoped the Eagles would respond and believe in themselves. He said the players answered the call by doing extra work before or after practice. The results came through at the end of the season when the team's hitting came fueled the run to the championship.
"It really seemed to motivate them and to challenge them," Harris said. "I told them you can't be a leader if you don't show it first. If you're out there busting your tail, it makes everybody else bust their tail. That was the big difference I saw over the year. Everybody just really started stepping up, from senior and juniors all the way down to the younger guys."
In addition to having the most talented team he has had, Harris said leadership was a crucial element. He said the leadership aspect pushed the team over the top.
Bradford said Harris' comment made the team believe it could realize its potential and that it had to push harder to reach its goal. He said he wasn't expecting Harris to praise the team like that, especially given the players who had come before him. He said team chemistry helped the players come together.
"On Friday, we just took care of business and had a lot of hits," said Harris, who returned the entire team from last season. "The championship game was tied in the fifth inning. We scored three runs in the bottom of the fifth and six runs in the bottom of the sixth."
Victory Christian (15-3) suffered all of its losses early in the season, falling to Tuscaloosa Christian, Hebron Christian (2-1), and Oak Hill Academy (12-6) in March. The team regrouped to beat Hebron Christian 7-1 on March 25. That victory was the first of 14 in a row to close the season. Along the way, Harris' words of encouragement served as motivation for a team led by seniors Austin Richardson, Charlie Price, Taylor Frye, Adam Young, and Hunter Austin.
Through 14 games, Young was one of four regulars to hit better than .400. At .405, Young was second on the team in runs with 18. Sophomore Chase Austin (.404), junior Shane Bradford (.417, second on team with 19 RBIs), and junior Anthony Sharp (.538) paced the offense. Sharp led the Eagles with 28 hits, 21 runs, six doubles, and 11 stolen bases.
Sharp, who has been a part of winning a title with the school's boys basketball team, said the Eagles were motivated after coming up short in football and in baseball in previous years. He said the baseball title was even sweeter because it is the program's first and it allowed the current group of players to have a hand in a title that they can call their own.
"There has been a lot of focus on our athletic success here before, but we have never really been a part of that," Sharp said. "Not only were we the team to beat, but I think we had desperation on our side. Our seniors have never won a varsity championship. They really wanted to get one. As much notoriety as people have got around here since I started coming here, we haven't had a lot of championship success. We were hungry for that championship."
In the ACEAA tournament, Sharp (9-0, 1.76 ERA) earned the victory in the mercy-rule shortened game against Conecuh Springs Christian. Bradford (5-1, 1.67) came back Saturday to close the title run. The Eagles rallied in the final two innings after New Life Christian scored one run in the fifth to tie the game at 1-all.
"It was nerve-wracking," Bradford said of the final game. "I didn't really feel safe or OK until after he hit that last pop up. I just knew Adam was going to catch it. That one had the best ending."
Hunter Austin, Bradford, and Young were named to the all-tournament team, while Sharp was named the tournament's MVP. Austin said the players kept Harris' words in the back of their minds and that they helped keep them focused. He recalls the words pepped the team up after a slow start to the season. By the time the tournament arrived, Austin said the team had the right mind-set.
"It definitely was the way I wanted to go out," Austin said. "Having the underclassmen back us up and work their hardest, too, helped."
Other team members are: Will Jones, Lane Euer, Brady Scarbrough, David Heaton, Cody Anthony, Cade Stacy, Cade Rollins, Chase Gore (filled in at shortstop and third base), Beau Riley, Cody Bolton, Will Porter, Montrell Neal, Reed Fulgham, and Kenny Collier.
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.