“We can get in spurts where we’re really gonna hit through this lineup, but pitching and defense wins baseball games and we’ve got a lot of it,” said VBA head coach Rickie Diehl. “It’s late in the week and everybody’s getting tired, but we’re gonna grind it out. That’s all we can do is grind it out.”
The team got off to a fast 5-0 start, outscoring its opponents 42-2 over that stretch while recording three shutouts. They dropped their first game Tuesday morning in walk-off fashion, but have come back to win their final pool play and move on to the playoffs.
“Early on, the pitchers were commanding their fastball, their offspeed was good, and then we just got into one of those mid-week funks, but we’ll bounce back and go grind out another win if we can,” Diehl said. “We’ve done a lot of this, so they should be used to the grind and that’s what we teach. You have got to grind it out in baseball.”
That’s exactly what they’ve done so far. As a team, they are hitting .335 (56-for-167) with 12 extra-base hits, including two home runs. Five Viper hitters are hitting .400 or better through at least 10 at-bats, paced by Taylor Easterling, who is 10-for-21 (.476 avg.) with four extra-base hits, 10 RBI, and 10 runs.
The pitching has been just as impressive as the offense. Eight VBA players who have toed the rubber have combined for just a 0.97 earned run average (ERA) through 43.1 innings of work, with a 0.97 WHIP (walks/hits per innings pitched).
Easterling has been the workhorse for the pitching staff as well, recording a 0.66 earned run average through 10.2 innings of work and earning two wins in the process.
“We’ve had this team since they were 11-years-old, plus or minus a few guys,” said Diehl. “They compete. Bottom line, as a coach, if you can get your players to run through a brick wall for you, then you’ve got something. That’s what we have with this team. They respect me, I respect them, and they know how to play the game. When it comes down to crunch time, if they’ve gotta run through a wall, they’re gonna run through it. Any coach would tell you that if you’ve got that, you’ve got a chance to win any ballgame you play.”
Diehl started the North Alabama Vipers travel baseball team in 1998 with the intent of providing a more competitive atmosphere for kids in the Huntsville, Ala. area. After a few successful seasons with the team, Diehl expanded and established the Viper Baseball Academy, attracting players not only from north Alabama, but from all over the state and even kids from Tennessee.
“I’ve got a coach with me right now who was one of the first players on it in ’98 and that team was the foundation for what I’m doing now, which is Viper Baseball Academy,” Diehl said.
Over the past 15 years, Diehl has served as head coach to over 150 college baseball players and 30 drafted Major League Baseball players, according to the Viper Baseball Academy website.
“The academy has been there since 2003 and our biggest focus there is to instill in them the ability to play hard on every pitch and grind games out,” said Diehl. “When we can get that instilled in them, then we know we have something.”
Two players who have come through the organization have been taken in the first round of the MLB Draft. Jed Bradley was drafted 15th overall in 2011 by the Milwaukee Brewers and David Dahl was taken 10th overall in 2012 by the Colorado Rockies. That particular draft has been the most successful for Diehl’s Viper Baseball Academy, as seven alumni were selected. The Vipers saw alumni Cody Reed taken in the second round of the most recent MLB Draft.
“We’ve got kids scattered everywhere,” Diehl said. “They’re at every SEC school. They’ve been taken in the MLB Draft. Every year we’ve got four or five kids that are drafted. We have kids going to Vanderbilt to pitch, and when you go to Vanderbilt to pitch, you can pitch.”
Viper Baseball Academy has three travel ball teams as of now: two 14u teams and an 11u team. Diehl has brought his best team to the WWBA 14u National Championship this week, but he said VBA is more than just developing the players’ tools.
“It’s just a foundation of how to play the game, how to compete in the game, and we’ve got some really great instructors there,” said Diehl. “We just try to put out a good product. If it’s good, we’re gonna tell you it’s good. It it’s bad, we’re gonna tell you it’s bad. We’re gonna tell you what you need to do to be a better baseball player because the truth is a motivator.”
The truth is, this Viper Baseball Academy 14u team is good. They’re making a statement at the WWBA 14u National Championship with a 6-1 start and pool play title.
“There are some of the best 14u teams in the nation here,” Diehl said. “We beat a very good baseball team Saturday night. That’s probably the best baseball game we’ve played all year long.”
Diehl hopes they can transfer that type of game to the playoff round. In the meantime, they wait to see who they will face Thursday morning.