Golden Tigers on a mission as area play begins

By Staff
Mike Self, Franklin County Times
The Russellville Golden Tigers are putting together another banner season on the baseball diamond.
They've already won 24 games, only five shy of last year's school-record 29 victories. Just this past week, they moved into the ASWA Class 5A rankings for the first time this season at No. 10. They've lost only three games all year to teams within the state of Alabama.
Despite all those accomplishments, the Golden Tigers are well aware of the grim reality: As of tomorrow, none of that matters.
"Our guys know that everything pretty much starts over now, and we can forget about what's already happened," said head coach David Ward, whose team will open play in Class 5A, Area 16 on Monday at home against Decatur. "If we continue to play the kind of baseball we've been playing, then I'm confident we can get the job done."
The job is simple: Win the area championship, or-at the very least-finish second and make the playoffs. Otherwise, another record-setting season will end in disappointment.
Last year, the Golden Tigers were sitting at 27-6 at roughly this same point in the season before stumbling down the stretch with eight losses in their final 10 games. Their late-season slide, which included two losses each to area rivals Muscle Shoals and Hartselle, cost them a playoff spot.
With critical area games looming later this month against No. 8 Athens (16-4) and the Trojans, Ward recognizes the importance of getting off to a strong start against Decatur.
"We've got to. We need to keep our confidence level high," said Ward, whose Golden Tigers (24-5) have won seven straight games since suffering back-to-back losses in the TimesDaily Classic. "We feel pretty good about the way we're playing lately, but in baseball that can change in a hurry."
The Red Raiders are new to Area 16, having dropped down from Class 6A to replace Hartselle. Ward said he sees some similarities between the two teams.
"They play a lot like Hartselle," he said. "They've got some young kids, but they've got some talent, too. They've played a really tough schedule so far. Their record is only about .500, but just about every team they've played has been ranked.
"I've had the chance to see them play three or four times, so I feel like we've got a pretty good scouting report on them. I was able to take some of our pitchers to see them play, so they have a pretty good idea of what to expect. We'll definitely have to play well to beat them."
As opposed to last year, when an injury to leadoff man Caleb Mitchell contributed heavily to the team's late-season struggles, this year the Golden Tigers expect to add a key player for the stretch run.
Ward said that junior Jacob Daniel, a pitcher and third baseman who led the team with a .459 batting average a year ago, will be able to return to action on April 9 after missing the entire season to date while rehabbing from surgery on his non-throwing shoulder.
Daniel's return would give Ward a power arm for the pitching staff and also bolster an offense that has performed very well in his absence.
"We've been doing a great job of executing in the short game," Ward said. "We've been able to bunt, hit-and-run, bunt-and-run and hit behind runners when we need to. That's deadly, when you have speed to work with. You can really put a lot of pressure on the defense, and we've been able to do that."