Southeast Regional Preview
There were millions of questions and not one easy answer to be found in the devastation left behind by a deadly tornado that tore through the small town of Ringgold, Ga., the evening of April 27, 2011.
The twister, with reported wind speeds of 195 mph, laid ruin on the northwest Georgia burg of 2,800. The National Weather Service reported that at least 178 tornadoes steamrolled through 14 states over the last few days of April, but few communities were as hard hit as Ringgold. Eight lives were lost, including those of two Ringgold High School students.
The high school and middle school buildings, sitting side-by-side, were badly damaged, and the high school’s sports venues were essentially wiped out – including the baseball field, known as “Little Wrigley” because of its distinctive red-brick wall.
In the aftermath, broken glass covered the field – as it did most of the streets, sidewalks, driveways and lawns in town – and the scene was one of total devastation. Eighteen downtown businesses were destroyed and at least 75 homes were deemed unsalvageable.
David Crownover is a teacher, coach and the assistant athletic director at Ringgold High School, and also the father of Perfect Game All-American left-handed pitcher Matthew Crownover.
“I live about 5 minutes from the school and all we got was a little bit of wind, and maybe a branch or two got knocked down in our sub-division,” Crownover said last week in a telephone conversation with Perfect Game that also included Ringgold High School head baseball coach Brent Tucker, RHS assistant principal J.R. Jones and senior Matthew Crownover. “But where it hit, it hit real bad.”
Ten months have passed since the residents of Ringgold had their lives forever changed. Ten months simply isn’t enough time to recover completely from a monumental natural disaster; they barely offer enough time to get started.
But thanks to a region-wide effort, the Ringgold Tigers will be playing home baseball games at a new “Little Wrigley” this spring with a bounce in their steps and pride welling in their hearts.
“This community has always supported Ringgold baseball – the community, the parents, the faculty – (and) we’ve got a lot of parents that worked on the stadium from years ago,” Jones said. “The stadium now, it’s immaculate; it’s going to be a sight to see for people who come to Ringgold.”
IT TOOK AWHILE FOR THE SCOPE of the disaster to sink in with the townspeople, but as funerals were conducted and while the grieving continued, the people of Ringgold decided to get on with life.
The RHS baseball team was just beginning postseason play and striving to make a second straight appearance in the Georgia High School Association Class AAA state championship game. Suddenly, it was a program without a home.
Catoosa County’s two other high schools – Heritage and Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe – offered assistance.
“There are two other high schools in the county and they offered us everything,” David Crownover said. “We had about four weeks left of school … and we went back to school to get some kind of closure for our seniors. Both high schools offered us their facilities and we ended up going to (Heritage) and finishing out school there by going half-days.”
Heritage also offered the Tigers the use of its baseball field for both practice and games. People were trying to help, but that didn’t keep the Ringgold players from feeling overwhelmed at times.
“We were right in the middle of our regional schedule and we were fighting for a regional title, and we had our sights set on trying to win a state championship,” Matthew Crownover said. “We never had any thoughts about having a natural disaster happen here in little ol’ Ringgold. We’re a safe place to live and nothing (bad) will ever happen to us to here. And then you have that. It was devastating to see all the things lost in this community and this town.”
A story published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on May 8 recounted that a day or two after the twister tore through, assistant principal Jones was taking a walking-tour of the campus and “found a small symbol of hope: a baseball, undamaged, on the ground. He held it up and smiled, and said he was going to give it to the baseball team. It may have served as inspiration.”
Ringgold’s final two regular season games were canceled and Tucker gave the Tigers a few days off before their first three-game playoff series against Sandy Springs Riverwood Charter at Heritage. Before getting back to it, Tucker, his coaching staff and some of the players’ parents visited their devastated high school and rescued as much equipment and as many uniforms as possible.
“That first day was kind of like a rummage sale, with everybody going through their stuff and seeing what we had,” Tucker said.
And then the Tigers started holding practice sessions at a couple of undamaged recreational fields.
“It gave us a release, those two hours every day at practice,” Tucker said. “We started doing what we loved, and that’s playing baseball. We tried to stay focused on the task at hand, and there were definitely some distractions, but I thought the kids did a great job of pulling together for the (playoff) games we played.”
THE SPECTER OF THE DEVASTATION couldn’t be erased by a couple of practice sessions leading up to playoff games. For one thing, everyone in town had to look at the ruins of the high school baseball field.
“It was devastating,” David Crownover said. “I’ve been here 22 years and that field’s always been there. Matthew grew up coming over to the field by the time he was in second or third grade, and that night, to realize that it was all wiped away in just a few minutes” was jolting, he said.
Both dugouts were destroyed. The concrete bleachers were obliterated and blown away, as well of all the fencing surrounding the field. The light poles were down and the scoreboard “was blown away to God knows where. We found bits and pieces of it two miles away,” David Crownover recalled.
The games went on. The Tigers traveled to Heritage High for their playoff “home” opener and swept Riverwood in two games, 13-1 and 10-1. Ringgold had to travel to Columbus for a second round three-game series, and after winning the opener 8-2, lost the next two 9-8 and 7-3. The Tigers finished the season 24-4 and three games short of a state championship game appearance.
“We were playing for the community and playing for all those who were taken by the tragedy,” Matthew Crownover said. “We really stuck together through hard times.”
The trying, adversity-filled 2011 season was history, and it was time to begin the physical rebuilding portion of the recovery. The townspeople stood shoulder-to-shoulder and started doing the heavy-lifting.
“This is a very tight-knit community and whenever we have a tough situation in this community (the people) will come together and help each other out. This high school is the same way,” Jones said. “When we lost our students, it was very devastating to our faculty and to our students. It was a very difficult situation but we’ve all been beside each other and stuck together, and that’s what got us through this situation.”
THE 2012 RINGGOLD TIGERS – part of the Perfect Game Southeast Region along with other high schools from Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi Arkansas and Louisiana – are ranked No. 11 in PG’s Southeast Region Rankings being released today and there’s a lot of optimism surrounding the upcoming season.
They are practicing on campus and there are still plenty of distractions, but nothing that can’t be turned into a positive.
“When we practice every day, there’s construction going on all around us, and we kind of joke around that we’re going to be real good at communication and hollering loud because we’ve had to talk over all the construction going on,” Tucker said with a chuckle. “The kids are excited about the season and they’re ready to start playing baseball. They’ve been practicing hard each and every day, and there’s definitely some excitement.”
The Tigers opened their season Saturday (Feb. 25) at Lassiter. They are scheduled to play March 2-3 at the Lagrange Invitational Tournament and will then play another road game, this time at Etowash.
And then, for the first time in more than 10 months, a baseball game will be played on the Ringgold High School campus when the Tigers and the new “Little Wrigley” host Gilmer in the season’s home-opener on March 8.
Tucker said the home-opener will feature three or four community members throwing out a first-pitch and other people instrumental in the re-building effort will be recognized, but most of the fanfare and long speeches will be kept to a minimum.
“We just kind of want to start playing baseball and get back to some normalcy as much as we can with it,” he said. “If I took too long (speaking) before the game, I think the players would probably have me tied up in the dugout because they want to play so bad.”
Matthew Crownover has signed a national letter-of-intent with Clemson University, but at the moment is totally focused on his final high school season – especially that first home game.
“It was really nice what Heritage did for us, letting us play at their field, but there’s something to be said to be playing at Ringgold,” he said. “There’s a certain amount of pride to put (our school name) across our chest and we’ll finally get to do that on our own field.
“We’re ready to get this season going and hopefully good things will happen for us.”
No team or community is more deserving.