June 26, 2010 11:33:00 PM
CALEDONIA -- Caledonia and Ridgeland are at different points on the baseball spectrum.
The Confederates have struggled to escape district competition the past few years, while the Titans have built their baseball program into one of the best in state.
Last month, Ridgeland finished as the runner-up to Long Beach in Class 5A.
Despite their different levels of success, the offseason gives both programs an equal opportunity to grow and to learn how to win championships.
And even though Ridgeland defeated Caledonia 11-8 on Saturday at the Dizzy Dean World Series, both teams showed they continue to make strides.
"This summer, they have learned how to compete and have become more aggressive," Caledonia assistant coach Andy Finch said. "When they play like they''re supposed to they are tough to beat. They are making a lot of strides."
Caledonia''s team is a combination of the two squads it fielded in the Golden Triangle summer league. The first team was mainly made up of high school starters, while the second team primarily featured younger players.
On Friday, Caledonia showed the attitude Finch referred to as it regrouped from a 9-0 loss to Neshoba Central to beat Gulfport 5-4 in nine innings.
Finch said the Confederates had trouble battling back from deficits early in the high school season. But he said the team matured throughout the spring and has continued to make strides in the past two months.
Against Ridgeland, Caledonia rallied from 8-0 deficit in the fourth inning to tie the game at 8 in the bottom of the sixth. Trey Lancaster had a two-run single in the fourth, Jake Stewart had an RBI single in the sixth, and Caleb Brown scored the tying run on a heads-up baserunning play following a throw in the dirt on a Ryan Unrue grounder.
Ridgeland answered with three runs in the top of the seventh on three hits and with the help of an error.
Still, Finch was pleased with how the Confederates rallied against a quality opponent.
"It makes you feel real good to see the kids compete," Finch said. "Once the kids start believing they can compete, that''s when they get better. All we ask is to see them come back and do it every game."
Finch feels the spring and the summer can be the first step for Caledonia to rebuild its winning tradition in baseball. He said he sees the intensity in some of the players'' eyes and hopes it becomes contagious.
Ridgeland coach Brian Rea, whose team has won the past two Dizzy Dean World Series, said his program is regrouping after losing 10 seniors. Only three players -- Nick Johnson (who is at the State Games of Mississippi), Collin Carroll, and Hunter Lohman -- played key roles this past high school season. That didn''t matter against Caledonia, though, as Carroll hit two home runs and had four RBIs and Lohman played well at catcher and made contact at the plate.
"We are inexperienced in some spots, but we are getting more experience every game we play," Rea said. "These kids have been doing the same things the kids ahead of them have been doing for three or four years. They have been getting just as many reps in practice, but they haven''t been in the spotlight, so to speak, in the games. This is what this is for. That is why we come here."
The victory helped Ridgeland secure first place in its pool. On Friday, Ridgeland defeated New Hope 15-13 to ensure it would have any tiebreakers against the Trojans.
A victory today by Ridgeland and another win by New Hope would mean the teams could face off at 7 tonight. The winner of that game would move on to play at 6 p.m. Monday for the Dizzy Dean World Series title.
Rea said the two World Series championships have provided plenty of confidence for his players. This year, he said a lot of guys are making the most of the opportunity to showcase their skills and to convince him they can play a position or contribute.
"Your entire program gains confidence," Rea said. "Any time you win a championship you''re learning how to win. Coming back last summer and winning it again (led to a high school season in which we went) 29-5 ... and won 26 games in a row. We see our kids learning how to win, and expecting to win.
"I think we''re seeing their hard work in practice leading up to this point pay off. I like what I see, and I think we''re going to be competitive for years to come."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.