In the 40 minutes between games one and two of the GHSA 6A baseball state championships, Houston County head coach Matt Hopkins talked with his players about staying focused.
The Bears had won the first game against Lassiter 2-1 after a sixth inning run in a game that was neck-and-neck all seven innings. The two squads came into the season finales with similar talent and records: both squads were 32-7.
Hopkins discussed the game with his starting pitcher, senior Coleman Willis, who was preparing for the biggest game of his career. He told him that it was just another game. The manager talked with his seniors who knew they had at most just two games left in a Houston County uniform.
But the biggest thing he told his team had more to do with the opponent than his own team.
“We let them know that when a team loses game one, they’re backed into a corner and they’re going to come out fighting,” Hopkins said after the game. “The best thing you can do is score early. If you can get on them early, a lot of times it will settle in.”
Houston County took their manager’s advice, scoring four runs on six hits in the first inning of Game 2 of the GHSA 6A baseball state championship series en route to a 4-0 win to complete the two-game sweep against Lassiter and win their first state title since 2016.
Bears strike first
The Bears continued the offensive streak from Game 1 with back-to-back singles from junior center fielder Gage Harrelson and senior rightfelder Treyson Hughes to open the game. Both were brought home with a huge two-RBI triple from sophomore first baseman Andrew Dunford.
With a 2-0 lead and no outs, Willis hit an RBI single to extend the Bears’ lead. After a quick strikeout from Lassiter’s Walker Noland, senior shortstop Trent Ringer got on base with a single before junior catcher Garrett Hortman’s single scored Willis to make it a 4-0 Houston County as the top of the first frame came to an end.
“We had a little bit of wiggle room, but we really wanted to go in there and take care of business,” Willis said of the four-run first inning. “It gives you a lot of confidence, especially as a pitcher. The run support was really big early. It definitely helped me today.”
In the bottom of the first, Lassiter’s Parker Hughes continued his great day at the plate with a single. Hughes, perhaps feeling the weight of a four-run deficit, took off for second base but was picked off by Hortman for the first out.
A standing double from Cameren Campbell was all the Trojans could muster up, as a pop fly to right field and a strikeout from Willis ended the inning.
Noland struck out all three Bears in order in the top of the second and Houston County responded with three quick outs of its own.
It looked like the offensive prowess might return in the top of the third as Dunford hit a double as the leadoff man. Willis grounded out to right field to advance Dunford, but a pop fly was thrown brilliantly home to tag a streaking Dunford, killing the scoring opportunity.
Lassiter put two baserunners on in the bottom of the third, but great defensive plays from sophomore third baseman Drew Burress ended the inning.
The Bears weren’t able to convert anything off of Noland in the fourth inning. Lassiter’s Ryan Stephens led off the bottom of the fourth with a single.
Treyson Hughes had a great catch in right field to pick up the first out and a Willis strikeout earned the second.
“We kind of slowed down after that, but we just continued to put the foot on the throat until the last out,” Hughes said. “It’s a really fun time to be in Houston County. Lassiter’s guys did their job, we did our job and we won the games.”
Jack Rinehimer, who was pinch running for Stephens, stole second base with two outs. Trey Griffin hit a single as Rinehimer looked to round 3rd base for the Trojans’ first run, but Treyson Hughes’ throw to home plate stopped Rinehimer in his tracks.
Willis smoothly struck out the next batter to prevent any runs from scoring.
After the fourth inning, baserunners were scarce, as Willis allowed just two more singles the rest of the night before jumping into his catcher’s arms at the end of a complete game, while Lassiter was left to look at the seven hits left on the board.
“What separated this group is they work out more than they’re required to. That’s what special athletes do. They’ve got that special drive,” Hopkins said. “I think they were hungrier. They lost 18 games plus a playoff run, so they wanted this. It was evident today and this is just a culmination of being 33-7 and state champions in a really tough 6A.”
Houston County finishes the season 33-7 and the state championship is the program’s third (2014 and 2016). The Bears used 11 seniors in their championship winning season, several of whom will be heading to play college baseball next season.
But until then, they’re going to celebrate the victory and remember this for a long time.
“It feels good to be the last one to win in Georgia,” Treyson Hughes said. “Nothing beats this. The electricity here tonight was insane. I don’t want to leave these guys, I’m never going to forget these guys.”