A 19-23 record shows what choice the Valley Cubs’ veteran coach made, but it was big-picture call. Alexandria has won 14 of its last 22 games headed into the North Central Regional, which starts today in Tuscaloosa’s Sokol Park.
“A lot of people, when they know they’re going to have a young team, will kind of scale the schedule back,” Hess said. “I felt like we needed to challenge them and just see how well they could play.”
Lately, that’s a lot better, and that’s what Alexandria needs headed into a Class 4A bracket with Cleburne County, Locust Fork, third-ranked Cherokee County, Crossville, No. 4 Sardis, St. Clair County and Lincoln.
The North Central Regional also features Pleasant Valley and Wellborn in the 2A bracket.
Star-area teams are spread through three regionals, all scheduled for today and Saturday. Oxford will play in the North Regional’s 6A bracket at Huntsville’s Sportsplex.
The South Central Regional at the Troy Sportsplex will feature defending 3A champion and No. 7 Saks in the same bracket with No. 6 White Plains and No. 3 Glencoe. The 1A qualifiers include No. 4 Ragland, Talladega County Central and Wadley, and Randolph County will represent the area in 2A.
The winner and runner-up from each regional in each classification will advance to next week’s state tourney at Montgomery’s Lagoon Park.
Teams that make postseason runs often aren’t those that win the month of March, and Alexandria has come a long way since its 5-15 start.
“I feel like we really have a good chance,” said Madison Shanks, the Valley Cubs’ top hitter at .341. “We’ve started peaking at the right time.”
Alexandria lost four seniors from last year’s team, and Amanda Young is the lone senior this season. The Valley Cubs have seven juniors, a sophomore, two freshmen and three eighth-graders. Two eighth-graders start.
They also started the year without freshman pitcher Lauren O’dell, who is 5-1 since doctors cleared her to play the week of the Calhoun County tournament. She missed time mending from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her drive (right) leg.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the innings I’ve been able to get out of her,” Hess said. “She’ll probably be my number one (at regional), and Taylor Ellison (10-5) will be my number two.”
Having O’dell in the fold has goosed Alexandria’s improvement, but it’s been more about playing against strong competition.
The Valley Cubs play in the same area as Cherokee County. They’ve also played two other teams in their regional bracket, St. Clair County and Sardis.
Alexandria has also played Saks twice, White Plains four times and Glencoe three times. They also saw Oxford (three times), No. 2 Sparkman, Spain Park and Opelika in 6A and Springville (twice) in 5A.
“That first half of the season was just brutal,” Hess said. “Every week, we were playing a top 10 team, whether it be 6A all the way down to 2A, and they were getting challenged.
“We knew it could go one of two ways. It could either go south, and we challenged them too much, and they would get that mannerism of, ‘We just can’t win,’ or they would accept the challenge and just get better. They decided to accept the challenge and started playing well.”
Hess said the lightbulb came on when the Valley Cubs came back from their spring break trip to Gulf Shores. He said he lost count of their come-from-behind victories.
He sees his team playing more confidently.
“The younger kids, at the beginning of the year, they would swing at anything that come across, even around, the plate,” Hess said. “Now, they’re starting to take those pitches. They’re starting to make the pitcher work a little bit. We’re going deeper in the count.
“A lot mental errors were made in the field, and now you’re starting to see a little different. Now, they’re feeling a little more confident and making a play at the plate instead of taking the easy out at first (base) and giving up the run.”
Now, Alexandria gets to take it to the second layer of postseason play, after finishing runner-up to Cherokee County in the Area 11 tournament.
“It’s like I told them the other day, I don’t think they’re going to see any better pitching than they’ve already see at the regionals,” Hess said. “They’ve seen from Sparkman all the way down to Pisgah, so I don’t think they’ll see anything that will surprise them.”
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, email@example.com. On Twitter @jmedley_star.