Golden Tigers outlast Mustangs to earn return to state championship
The Russellville Golden Tigers are headed back to play for the AHSAA Class 5A baseball state championship.
In front of a packed and loud stadium at RHS, the Golden Tigers knocked out the Madison Academy Mustangs by winning two of the three games in a best-of-three semifinal series that was filled with emotion.
The Mustangs took game one 9-4 May 12.
The home crowd helped to ignite the Golden Tigers, who were trailing in game two by a 5-1 score heading into the top of the fourth inning later that evening. As the Russellville fans rose to their feet and made noise, the Golden Tigers scored in every inning for the rest of the contest to get a thrilling 13-10 victory and force a third and decisive game.
Another standing-room-only crowd supporting the two schools returned the next day, and they witnessed another classic, with Russellville getting a 5-0 victory on the shoulders of starting pitcher Samuel Pace’s complete-game gem and a three-run home run by Canyon Pace that broke a scoreless tie in the bottom of the fifth inning.
“It was just incredible and an incredible atmosphere,” said Russellville head coach Chris Heaps. “I can’t ever remember seeing this many people at a high school baseball game with that much energy that long, last night and today.”
This will be Russellville’s sixth 5A state championship series appearance under Heaps, with the first coming in 2015. The Golden Tigers have won four of the past six possible 5A state titles, including this past year. Russellville has a tremendous 29-2 playoff series record since 2015, with the only series losses coming in the state finals of 2018 and the second round of the 2019 playoffs.
Russellville, 33-12, will face Holtville, 34-5, this year in the 5A finals. Game one is scheduled for May 18 in Oxford with game two and an “if necessary” game three slated for the following day at Jacksonville State University.
“I love these guys like they are my own,” Heaps said after the emotional series win over Madison Academy. “It’s one of the closest groups of juniors and seniors, and these sophomores have been called up, and they’ve also bought in to the process.”
Facing the must-win situation in game two, Russellville scored 13 runs, with 12 coming in the fourth inning or later.
Reed Hill had two hits, including a home run, two walks and two RBIs, and he also scored four times. Casen Heaps added two doubles and three RBIs, and teammates Grayson Thorpe and Brayden Spurgeon also doubled.
Thorpe had two RBIs during the win, and Spurgeon plated one. Shayden Romans also picked up an RBI with a seventh-inning single.
Spurgeon got the win in relief of starting pitcher Logan White.
Alex Wade had two hits in three at-bats for the Mustangs, including a home run and a double. The senior Auburn signee also drove in four runs to set the stage for what was to come the next day, when Russellville chose to intentionally walk the standout hitter in each of his three plate appearances during the final game of the series.
“They’re upset because we walked Alex Wade, but we walked Alex Wade because he is one of the best hitters I’ve seen in a high school uniform in 26 years,” explained the Russellville coach. “Alex Wade is a bad man, and I don’t think there is a high school player with a higher ceiling right now than his ability.
“We put him on because we had tremendous fear and respect for him, and it’s probably the smartest thing we did.”
That final game will long be remembered by those in attendance. Senior Russellville starting pitcher Samuel Pace got his first play-off start of his career, and he made it count in a big way. The right-hander pitched all seven innings for the win, allowing three hits and no runs.
Madison Academy starter Brandon Yeager allowed no runs until the fifth inning, when senior catcher Canyon Pace unloaded on a pitch with two runners on base for a home run that sent the home crowd into a frenzy.
Casen Heaps later added two insurance runs in the bottom of the sixth with a double to make the score 5-0.
“It was a big game,” Samuel Pace said. “Every week, me and Coach Langston say we’ve got to wait our turn and it’s coming. We knew what we were going to face. We were going to get to that game three, and I had to come out here and do what I do best, and that’s throw strikes and put up zeroes.”
Russellville pitching coach – and recently-named Northwest-Shoals head coach for next season – David Langston said he has faith in the entire group of RHS pitchers, including Pace. “We’ve got seven guys, and we trust all seven of them,” Langston said. “I’ve never seen him be scared in any situation,” he shared about Pace. “Obviously, these three games have all been uptight and full of intensity, and his personality fits that perfectly. He’s done that for two years since I’ve been here. Every time out, he gives you an opportunity to win.”
Catcher Canyon Pace – no relation – also had faith in the big right-handed pitcher from the start. “You wouldn’t have thought it was game three that he was pitching,” Canyon said about Samuel. “He was just out there and ready to go. He was not nervous at all, and he was ready to dominate.”
Dominate he did.