Year after their predecessors made Jackets champions, Oxford seniors led a rebuilt team to mark of consistency
by Joe Medley
jmedley@annistonstar.com
Apr 28, 2013 | 3034 views |  0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Oxford catcher Austin Jones can’t make the tag on a Grissom runner at home plate Saturday afternoon. (Photo by Bill Wilson)
Oxford catcher Austin Jones can’t make the tag on a Grissom runner at home plate Saturday afternoon. (Photo by Bill Wilson)
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OXFORD — The five seniors who knelt in a long huddle with Oxford baseball coach Wes Brooks on Saturday didn’t finish their careers with nearly the fanfare of last year’s group.

A 6-4 loss to Grissom the deciding game of the Class 6A second round clinched that Oxford’s seniors won’t finish as state champions, though they enjoyed that mob scene in Montgomery’s Riverwalk Stadium as juniors.

Trent Simpson is off to Mississippi State for football and, possibly, baseball, but no one projects a big draft day for Oxford in June, like what the Yellow Jackets enjoyed almost a year ago.

But the group including Simpson, Matt Butler, Dylan Johnson, Joe McGuire and Jared Shake left a mark of consistency. They left that mark by getting a nearly all-new team within one strike of the third round.

It’s a mark that was still missing from an Oxford program that missed the playoffs a year before winning the school’s first 6A title in any sport.

“These seniors have proved that Oxford baseball is something to fear when you come here or Oxford is coming to your house,” Brooks said.

They did it with a big final push, sweeping Pell City in the final regular-season series to make the playoffs then sweeping third-ranked Huntsville in the first round.

The Yellow Jackets beat Grissom 9-8 in Game 1 of their second-round series and held a 4-2 lead with Grissom down to its last strike in Friday’s Game 2.

Grissom rallied to force extra innings and won 5-4, forcing Saturday’s Game 3.

“That’ll be something to make those kids for next year push that much harder to not get down to that last little bit and lose focus,” Simpson said. “Hopefully, they remember this and work hard during this offseason and summer and come back with a fresh start next year and play for the third round and the finals.”

As for Saturday, Grissom went up 5-0 in the third inning, sending 11 batters to the plate. They mounted that decisive rally with two singles to the outfield, two infield singles, two hit batsmen, two walks and a sacrifice fly.

Still, the Oxford team that rallied to make the playoffs rallied again in hopes of staying. Simpson’s home run to lead off the sixth inning and Butler’s 2-run double cut Grissom’s lead to 5-3.

Grissom added a run on a bases-loaded passed ball in the bottom of the sixth, but Oxford manufactured one on McGuire’s opposite-field, sacrifice fly. It was a line drive that carried.

The game ended with Drake Champion at the plate, representing the go-ahead run. He homered Friday but struck out swinging Saturday.

Oxford held a somber team huddle at the mound, followed by Brooks’ take-a-knee huddle with seniors along the first-base line on Bud McCarty Field. McGuire struggled to choke back emotions, but there was perspective behind Oxford’s late-season surge and near-miss against Grissom.

“If you think of it, I mean, second round? It sucks,” McGuire said. “But it’s an accomplishment, after rebuilding, and no one expected us to even be in this game.

“We may not have made it to the third, fourth or fifth round, but we won something for next year.”

This Oxford team had to rebuild after losing eight starters. The Jackets lost their starting rotation, with Tucker Simpson (Trent’s brother) starting at the University of Florida this season and Jackson Stephens and Zach Lovvorn playing in the minor leagues.

“For them to make it to the top 16 teams in the state after a year where we lost 13 seniors and eight starters, you would think that, ‘Man, they left a name for themselves, this 2013 year,’” Brooks said.

There were challenges beyond replacing departed seniors. It took nearly the whole season for Trent Simpson to fully recover from a football knee injury and get comfortable but he hit nine home runs in Oxford’s final three series.

He hit a grand slam and walk-off homer in Friday’s opener against Grissom and the solo shot Saturday.

“My dad, the day before we played Pell City, he said, ‘All right, you’ve had your at bats. Now it’s time to get locked in,’” Simpson said. “That Pell City series made it click for me.

“I’ll remember it (his big senior-season finish) for the rest of my life. Hopefully, that’s not the last baseball game I’ll ever play.”

Oxford finished 18-17 but proved it’s how one finishes. Two years ago, the Jackets won 31 games but missed the playoffs.

Two years later, Oxford is the program that lost a generational group of seniors but came within a strike of the third round.

“The best feeling in the world is proving people wrong, and I feel like this team exceeded every expectation that was set before us,” Simpson said. “I was really proud to be a part of this team.”

Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.
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