DEXTER, Ga. — You can tell when players love their coach.
It’s not always found in the win-loss records, although in the particular case of this year’s Eastside baseball team, you could certainly point to its win total — inclusive of a 16-game midseason winning streak — for verifiable evidence.
But when I seek to quantify how well coach-team chemistry is doing, I always look for those “run through-a-brick-wall” signs players tend to exhibit.
Those of you who have watched virtually every Eastside at-bat, seen every pitch thrown, every play at the plate, and every defensive web gem could probably name more than a handful of such moments where players seemingly went above and beyond the call of duty, due to both their love of the game and the man unexpectedly tabbed to lead them through this season.
I go back to two moments in the last Eastside’s game against Thomson in the first round of the state tournament. In one situation, Riley Ralston is at the plate, and a wild pitch hits him in the helmet.
He goes down for a few, but then shouts out “I’m good,” before jumping up off the ground and advancing to first base. A little while later, Ralston would track a ball headed to shallow center and completely lay out for it to snag an out, keeping Thomson from scoring in the inning.
That’s major heart. That’s major toughness, at least to me it is.
Then there’s Ryan Shirley who sacrificed his nose while trying to field what started as a routine grounder to third that took a bad hop in the dirt and smacked him square in the face. He would leave the game, holding ice to his nose. The play came shortly after he recorded an RBI double that gave Eastside a 2-0 lead in a tight Game 2.
Shirley was back in action in West Laurens Thursday night, making pivotal plays.
These, and other young men, made these plays — and no doubt countless other sacrifices this season — because they just love the game of baseball, I’m sure. But I also believe they put their bodies on the line, not just in that high-stakes playoff game affair, but all season long because they love their team and their coaches, particularly interim head coach Brandon Crumbley.
Crumbley spent time as an assistant coach at Eastside before being abruptly promoted over the offseason. He didn’t have a ton of time to build culture and camaraderie. Thankfully, he didn’t need it.
The relationships were already there. Crumbley knew who his leaders were — senior and otherwise, and the Eastside players already knew how invested Crumbley was in seeing them develop into the best baseball players possible.
Whether you’re an athletic director or a parent with a child on the ballclub’s roster, what more could you ask for?
Almost as if the Eagles baseball team was asked that very question in a non-rhetorical sense, they went out and showed their grit and guts in a two-game, Sweet 16 series in Dexter, Ga. against West Laurens. West Laurens won Game 1 7-6, needing a seventh-inning comeback to stave off Crumbley’s Eagles.
Then it needed some more late-game heroics and a lucky — or unlucky if you’re Eastside — bounce of the ball on an error to pull out a 3-2 win in Game 2. In the books, it’ll go down as a two-game sweep, but it sure didn’t feel like one, the way these boys battled in a hostile environment. Clearly, it wasn’t the ending Eastside wanted, but it still spoke volumes about the character of this team and the potential of the program.
Yes, there are some who have said Eastside’s success is diluted because of a relatively weak region. But that isn’t their fault. You can only play who’s in front of you. And when good teams blow out subpar teams, they’re only doing what good teams do.
Notwithstanding, anytime you can reel off 16 straight in a season, collect a region runner-up crown and come within two late-game runs from advancing to the Elite Eight — all with a first-year head coach piloting a team through an unexpected journey, I’d say you’ve got something special on your hands.
I remember back in early February, about a week or so before the season opener at Walnut Grove, I was watching the team warm up for practice. They were shagging balls and trying to field them cleanly. Apparently, if you dropped one, it warranted a set of push-ups.
Crumbley sauntered into the infield as an Eastside batter prepared to hit. He reached for the ball coming off the bat and it fell beyond his grip. He laughed and immediately went down into push-up position.
Afterward, I asked him how did the team go about getting him to agree to push-ups.
“Lead by example,” he said, still smiling. “If they’ve gotta do it, then I’ve gotta do it too.”
Sometimes all you need to rightly discern a person’s character is to hear them speak one or two sentences, and you can grasp a general idea of the type of individual you’re working with.
Honestly, I guess that’s the image that speaks loudest to me after all. A coach who cares so much about the collective buy-in of his team, he doesn’t mind showing that he isn’t above becoming one of them, even as he maintains his status as a leader.
In this day and age, it’s hard to find that kind of ambidextrous personality in leadership — one who’s respected enough to lead, but down-to-earth enough to allow those who follow him to occasionally walk side-by-side with him as equals.
And while I’m nobody’s athletic director, nor do I play one on TV or in the papers, I do believe Crumbley has shown and done enough to have that interim tag removed. Maybe that’s been the plan all along, I don’t know.
What I do know, however, is Eastside baseball seems to be in good hands with the man already at the helm. And you know the old saying: If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Gabriel Stovall is the sports editor of The Covington News. He can be reached for tips and story ideas at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @GabrielStovall1.