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High School | General | 3/5/2021

Spanish Fort eyes Showdown prize

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Caleb Hayles (Perfect Game)

HOOVER, Ala. – About an hour before his Spanish Fort (Ala.) Toros would be taking the field at the Hoover Met Complex to face the fellow Alabama entrant Phenix City Central Red Devils in a semifinal-round playoff game at the Perfect Game High School Showdown, head coach JD Pruitt was all business.

He was working with several of his players individually in one of the batting cages about 100 yards or so north of the complex’s main quad, proving once again there’s always time for a little extra instruction; a little extra attention to detail, if you will.

After the session wrapped up and Pruitt made his way back to the field where the semi would be played, he took the time to answer a few questions from PG, the first of which addressed the subject of how he felt his team had been playing 12 games into the 2021 regular season.

“We’ve been OK,” Pruitt said almost matter-of-factly but also with little hint of concern in his voice. “We’ve been very good at times and then there’s other times that we’ve been very inconsistent. We’re trying to figure out who we are and what we want to be as a team, and I think we’re making strides in that area.

“With the arms that we do have at the top of our rotation, each time those guys go out there, they’re going to give us a shot to be in ballgames.”

As it turned out, the Toros’ top arm, the one belonging to senior left-hander Brady Garcia (a top-500 2021 prospect, Alabama signee) struggled early in Friday’s outing but finished strong, and the Toros’ bats carried them to an 11-5 victory over the never-say-die Red Devils.

They also carried Spanish Fort (3-0) into Saturday’s PGHS Showdown Blue Bracket championship game at Hoover Met Stadium where they’ll face the PGHS nationally No. 5-ranked Buford (Ga.) Wolves (3-0); Buford also played in a Showdown championship game last year and finished as runner-up.

Friday’s play at the Met set up what should be a tantalizing Showdown Championship Saturday featuring six teams from Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

The Red Bracket title tilt pits the Cullman (Ala.) Bearcats (2-1) against the PGHS No. 1-ranked IMG Academy (Fla.) Ascenders (3-0-0) while the White Bracket championship has the Oxford (Ala.) Yellow Jackets (2-1) facing the Loganville (Ga.) Red Devils. Loganville was the Red Bracket champion in 2020 after beating IMGA in the championship game.

Spanish Fort trailed Central High, 4-1, after two innings in the semi on Friday but used a seven-run third to take a four-run lead en route to the six-run win. The Toros totaled 10 hits, led by senior Caleb Hayles (Follow, Coastal Alabama CC) who singled twice, doubled, drove in a run and scored two others.

Junior Matthew Thompson (HF) contributed a single and a double with three RBI and a pair of runs scored, junior Cole Morton singled and doubled and drove in two and junior Jackson Ray (HF) delivered a two-run double.

The aforementioned Garcia survived Central’s four-run second and worked five innings, allowing five runs on five hits with six strikeouts and three walks. That outing proved to be more than good enough on this day and gave the arms in the pen a bit of a reprieve.

“There’s just a few little things that we could be doing a little bit better, as always,” Hayles said, “but I’m happy with the way we’re playing. We’re going out there and competing and that’s the main thing. We’ve just got to out-compete the team on the other side of the field.”

Six seniors, including Garcia, are listed on the Toros’ official roster but it is the team’s juniors who garner the most attention, and deservedly so.

The headliners are right-hander/outfielder Carter Stanford (No. 393-ranked ’22)  and right-hander/corner infielder Cameron Keshock (No. 331); in a couple of years they could be facing off against each other in SEC play at arch-rivals Alabama and Auburn, respectively – one can only hope their friendship can endure.

“We’ve got a ton of juniors, as big of a class as I’ve ever had,” Pruitt said. “It’s a good class, it’s a fairly deep class in terms of what those guys can do and how much they can produce...It’s a pretty good class that complements the pieces around them class-wise fairly well.”

Pruitt noted that this is a team that has gone through stretches in its first 12 games (6-6 record) where it’s hit the ball really well, and that carried over into the first three games at the Showdown. But he was quick to point out, the team’s biggest strength is its athleticism – the Toros averaged nearly five stolen bases a game in those first 12 contests.

“We’re able to create an advantage for ourselves offensively by what we do on the basepaths,” he said. “But we’ve got to be (more) consistent defensively and I think our biggest concern as a team and what we’re continuing to try to develop is our bullpen. If we can do that, we’ll give ourselves an opportunity.”

It must not be overlooked that this Central High team Spanish Fort beat on Friday is no slouch – far from it, in fact.

The Red Devils, led by fourth-year head coach AJ Kehoe, got off to a monster start in the 2021 season, winning all nine of their games before arriving in Hoover, meaning they were riding an 11-game win streak before falling to the Toros. Kehoe said the team has been playing pretty well, or well enough, anyway.

“I’m really, really blessed and fortunate; we just have great internal leadership,” he told PG pregame. “I’ve got great assistant coaches (and) everybody’s really bought in to the process of what we’re trying to get accomplished. We’re a very unselfish group and guys really grind out A-Bs.

“Just a blue-collar club, man,” he continued. “They do a good job pushing on the bases, have good approaches, stay disciplined at the plate and we’re hitting just enough. We’re executing defensively and getting the good pitching that we need.”

The Red Devils managed just five hits, all singles, against the Toros. Sophomore Jax Yoxtheimer singled and drove in three runs and senior Zion Morris and junior Caleb Johnson each singled and drove in a run.

They also enjoy the talents of top-500 seniors Tyler Haines (Mississippi State) and Will Cannon (Georgia State) along with senior Cole Kehoe (Fol, Auburn U. Montgomery).

“We rely on our senior leadership tremendously,” Coach Kehoe said. “We do have a great mix and we actually start a great mix. We have 10 seniors and four of them start. The other ones have specific roles [whether] they’re in the bullpen or [whether] they’re being used as a courtesy runner or a pinch-hitter or whatever it may be.”

And so it is the Spanish Fork Toros who will face the monumental task of trying to derail the Buford Wolves on Championship Saturday, a tall task indeed considering their roster boasts eight D-I recruits including the top junior right-hander in all the land, Dylan Lesko (No. 2, Vanderbilt) amongst a host of others. But that’s why, it’s been said, you play the games.

Some may consider it no more than coach-speak when the head guy says he just wants his players to stay the course and not try to become something they’re not while they’re chasing a major tournament championship.

But Pruitt definitely comes across as sincere when he speaks about telling his players to look across the field at whoever’s playing his same position and focus on competing against that guy while your teammates do the same. Don’t change a thing.

“So again, coming into this thing we’re going to be who we are and we’ve done that up to this point (and) if we continue to do that we’ll give ourselves an opportunity,” Pruitt said. “I told them, I don’t care about the wins, I don’t care about the losses, I want you to go out and compete every single pitch.”

Added the senior Hayles: “We’ve just got to play our game, you know. Be aggressive, stay locked-in and just compete. This is a fun team to be a part of.”

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