Bulldogs set to host Winfield in new stadium
by Joe Medley
jmedley@annistonstar.com
May 04, 2012 | 2838 views |  0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
PIEDMONT — It was about a year ago when senior Chris Strott started hearing about the possibility that he and his Piedmont baseball teammates would finally have a campus home field.

Then Piedmont coach James Blanchard threw out a little extra motivation.

“Whenever coach said we’re going to have a new baseball stadium, he said, ‘We’re going to have to do something,’” Strott recalled. “We’re going to have to win and get people into coming to baseball games.

“Coach Blanchard said at the beginning of the year that this could be the year.”

It has been Piedmont’s year, and the best part for the Bulldogs? They have a chance to put together the school’s longest playoff run on their new home field.

Piedmont (25-9-1) will play host to Winfield (27-19) in a third-round playoff series starting with a doubleheader 5 p.m. today. If the best-of-3 series carries beyond tonight, the teams will play Game 3 at 3 p.m. Saturday.

If the Bulldogs win their first quarterfinal series since 1989, they will reach the semifinals for the first time in baseball. There’s a chance they could play the semifinals at home.

So far, Piedmont’s entire playoff run has played out at home. They swept Glencoe and White Plains on the new field.

Piedmont had gone 21 years between home playoff games, last playing one in 1991. Blanchard said the new field has added something to his team’s edge this season.

“This is our house, and they understand that,” he said. “This is theirs, and it’s not just somebody’s that we’re just using.

“We’re like that in football and basketball. We play hard at home and don’t like to lose at home. They kind of bought in that this is their place, and we’re not going to lose at home.”

Piedmont opened new baseball and softball fields this season. They were part of the same project that produced the Bulldogs’ revamped football stadium before the 2011 season.

The project was part of a 10-year plan that originated in the late 1990s. The baseball and softball fields sit back-to-back on the school’s campus, right behind the new home football grandstand.

Piedmont’s baseball team used to play on a parks-and-recreation field near campus.

“Just having your own field where you don’t have to go over to the field every day is nice,” Blanchard said. “We’ve got our own dressing room. Just come out right to the field right out of school.

“We were having to go to the parks and rec field and kind of dress in the dugout and bathroom.”

The new digs came timed with a ready-for-primetime team.

This Piedmont team came up under Blanchard, who was hired away from Cherokee County. He was hired for football but with an eye toward him becoming the baseball coach.

“I coached football at Centre for a long time, and Coach (Steve) Smith (Piedmont’s football coach and athletics director) asked me to help him with football,” Blanchard said. “He coached baseball for a while, and I helped him, and then he turned the team over to me.”

The Bulldogs made the playoffs in two of Blanchard’s first three seasons. Now with six seniors and key juniors like Cade Bradley, who hit two huge home runs and won a pitching duel with Zach Cunningham in the White Plains series, they are making a deep run in his fourth season.

“I coach travel ball, too, and I’d see these guys at travel-ball tournaments,” Blanchard said. “I knew they were good baseball players, and we just work hard.

“I’m one of those coaches who works on fundamentals a lot, and I just knew, with these guys, with the potential they had and hard work, they’d be good someday.”

Someday came this season, along with the new home field.

The Bulldogs played their first four games on the road and first three home games on the parks and recreation field, while the final touches were put on the new field. They opened the new field with a 9-2 victory over Wellborn.

Former Jacksonville State coach Rudy Abbott threw out the first pitch.

“That was special,” senior catcher Landon Pruitt said. “It was a good feeling, after we heard the talk about it and it finally happened. It was a good feeling to finally get to play on it.”

Winning the Class 3A, Area 10 title meant that Piedmont would get to open the playoffs at home.

“Once we found out that we were going to play the first game here, I think everybody kind of felt a tingle inside,” Strott said. “We’re actually hosting a playoff game. We hadn’t done it in a while.

“We’ve taken it to heart. We’ve been practicing really hard and just been eager to get here, and now we’re here.”

The Bulldogs have a chance to stay at home through the semifinals.

“It’s been special, something that hasn’t been done around here in a while,” Pruitt said. “We have good fan support, and we hope we can have more Friday night and just keep it going.”

Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or jmedley@annistonstar.com. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.

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