Huntsville, the Class 6A champion in baseball in 2011, wasn’t able to extend its reign last season. In turn, Oxford won it all in 2012. And now, even though 13 seniors are gone from that squad, the Yellow Jackets are on the hot seat as they defend their first baseball state championship in school history.
“Obviously, that was exciting and something we’re going to remember for the rest of our lives,” senior Trent Simpson said. “But it’s also the past and we’ve got to focus on this year. We tried to not make it seem like there’s any pressure. We knew we were a different team from last year and we’re not as good as last year. We’re young, but we’re improved, as well.”
As fate would have it, the Yellow Jackets (15-13) face third-ranked Huntsville (27-7) this weekend in the first round of the state playoffs. The best-of-three series will open with a doubleheader today at 4:30 p.m. at Huntsville. If they need a third game, it is scheduled for Saturday at 1 p.m.
“Traditionally, Huntsville has a strong program every year, and traditionally, we’ve had a strong program every year,” Oxford coach Wes Brooks said. “They remind me a lot of us. They have a lot of class and there’s not going to be any blood, trash talk or anything like that.”
The Yellow Jackets didn’t play Huntsville this year, although they have in previous years. Because of that, they don’t know much about the Panthers.
What Oxford does know, however, is it wants to get past the shadow of 2012 and show that it is a team to remember. And after a slow start against tough competition had Oxford floating around .500 through the Calhoun County tournament, the Yellow Jackets started clicking during Area 13 play.
“We really grew up when we beat Clay-Chalkville in the first game of area play,” senior Jared Shake said. “It showed we can compete with guys in 6A.”
Oxford won series against Clay-Chalkville and Gadsden City in area play while coming together as a team that has “a bunch of good players, but nothing compared to last year,” according to senior Joe McGuire.
“We play as a team and we don’t have any drama,” McGuire said. “We’re all just really good friends and I think that’s the biggest thing.”
But with a loss coming in each of the Clay-Chalkville and Gadsden City series, Oxford still needed to win the series against rival Pell City last week to clinch a spot in the playoffs.
“Since we played the first game at home, we felt pretty confident,” senior Matt Butler said. “We just knew when we traveled to Pell City we needed to pull through.”
Oxford won its game at home before traveling in need of one win in two games to clinch. Playing with the same chip on their shoulder as they’ve had all year, the Yellow Jackets won both games.
“It just all came together,” Simpson said. “The moment with it being a life-or-death situation makes you focus that much more.”
Brooks said he feels confident he has one of the better teams in Alabama.
“There’s not a runaway team and the north is wide open this year,” he said. “I think whoever can get mentally right before the playoffs start and take it a game at a time will have the best advantage. And I think there are going to be some early upsets.
“It’s going to be tough for us to go there on the road and win, but we’ll put a game plan together this week and give it our best shot. I’ve got full confidence in our guys that if we execute our game plan that we’ll come out on top.”
Sports Writer Brandon Miller: 256-235-3575. On Twitter @bmiller_star.