Gaining ground: Tigers, Bulldogs closing the gap on county rivals

By Staff
Mike Self, Franklin County Times
It might be easy to look at Phil Campbell's disappointing record this season and conclude that the Bobcats' amazing streak of 12 consecutive Franklin County Tournament championships is all but finished.
Red Bay coach Donnie Hastings isn't buying it.
"Phil Campbell is still the favorite," said Hastings, whose Tigers are 15-5 heading into today's opening-round action at Vina. "Their record really doesn't mean much to me, because they've played against such tough competition. As far as I'm concerned, they're the North region champions, the area champions and the county champions until somebody beats them."
The Bobcats-coming off back-to-back appearances in the Class 2A state finals-have stumbled to a 3-11 start against a brutal schedule, but that didn't stop Vina coach Greg Hamilton from joining Hastings in touting Phil Campbell as the team to beat this week.
"Phil Campbell has to be the favorite," said Hamilton, whose Red Devils (3-7) have lost to the Bobcats in the past four county championship games. "I don't care what their record is. They're the favorite until somebody knocks them off."
Red Bay's strong play thus far has at least one coach believing that Phil Campbell's reign as county champ could be in jeopardy.
"Going in, I'd say Red Bay is the favorite," said Belgreen coach Derek Ergle, whose Bulldogs (6-7) have already suffered four losses at the hands of the Tigers. "They've been playing really well this season, and they're capable of getting on a hot streak."
Phil Campbell coach Micheal Beck has also taken notice of Red Bay's fast start, which has landed the Tigers at No. 10 in the ASWA Class 2A state rankings.
"I'd say you have to look at Red Bay as the favorite, because of their record," Beck said. "They're quite a few games ahead of everybody else. Coach Hamilton and I were talking the other day, and if you add up his wins so far this year and my wins so far this year then we're even with Belgreen. And Red Bay more than doubles us. That makes them the team to beat."
The Bobcats' schedule thus far has included games against three-time defending Class 1A champion American Christian Academy, undefeated Hackleburg, and Class 4A powers Haleyville and Dora.
"I think I may have gone out and put together the toughest schedule in the state," Beck said. "Every team we play has at least three guys who can hit it out of the park. I'm hoping that playing tough competition will pay off for us in the long run."
All the coaches do seem to agree on one thing: This year's tournament is more wide-open than any in recent memory.
"All four teams are pretty good, and I think it's anybody's tournament," Hastings said. "It's been Phil Campbell and Vina [in the championship game] the last few years, but, to me, everybody's closer this year than they have been in a while."
The perceived leveling of the playing field can be attributed to more than just uncharacteristic slow starts by perennial powers Phil Campbell and Vina. Red Bay and Belgreen both have already exceeded their win totals from last year by four games-and the season is barely halfway over.
"It's definitely more competitive this year," Hamilton said. "When you look at us and Phil Campbell, at least record-wise, we don't stack up to Belgreen and Red Bay right now. We're just hoping to be able to go out there and compete."
The major strides made by the Tigers and Bulldogs this season have injected new life into the tournament.
"I definitely think it will make the county tournament more exciting," Ergle said. "Any school has a chance to win. If you look at everybody's records, us and Vina and Phil Campbell are kind of bunched together, and then Red Bay's way out in front. I know Phil Campbell has played a lot of tough teams. It should be an exciting tournament. We're looking forward to it."
A change in format has also added a new wrinkle to this year's tournament. Instead of a one-day, single-elimination event featuring just three games total, this year's tourney will last three days and feature at least four games for each participant.
Each team in the tournament will play the other three teams in round-robin action today and Thursday, and then all the teams will be seeded according to record for a single-elimination tournament on Friday.
"I've been pushing to change the format for 10 years," Beck said. "It just didn't make any sense to me to have a tournament where you only play one or two games. This will give everybody a chance to get some more games under their belt."
With the number of games for each team increasing dramatically, depth on the mound will take center stage.
"In a tournament setting like this, it's going to come down to pitching," Hamilton said. "You're looking at playing five games to win the championship, so whoever has the most pitching depth will probably come out on top."
Ergle agreed.
"I expect everybody to save their best pitching for Friday, because if you win one game Friday you're in the championship," he said. "I look for a lot of low-scoring games."
Beck also talked about how the new format would affect how each team sets up their rotation for the tournament.
"It will definitely have an impact on pitching strategy," he said. "I'll probably throw my ninth and tenth graders the first two days and save my two juniors [Steven Lacey and Jonathan Dill] for Friday."

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