What: GHSA Class AAA Baseball championship
Where: Columbus at Ringgold (2 games)
When: Today, 4 p.m.
Tickets: $7 at the gate
RINGGOLD, Ga. -- The Ringgold Tigers' baseball team is a walking, talking, moose-antler-waving contradiction.
At any given time the Tigers, who are hosting 31-4 and top-ranked Columbus today at 4 in a double-header to the Georgia Class AAA championship series, are high school baseball's version of the Texas Rangers. During a big moment in a game, the players are apt to rush to the front of the dugout and raise their hands to make antlers on top of their caps. At other times they'll break into song or a chant aimed at firing up a batter or rattling an opponent.
One opponent's fans recently compared them to a softball team for their continual chatter.
They joke, they relentlessly jab at sophomore shortstop Slade Dale (whose only crime is not being one of the team's eight seniors) and they love their rowdy student supporters.
Make no mistake, though. Through all the playfulness, these are players hardened by events of the past 13 months. Coach Brent Tucker relaxed his long-held stance against free expression in large part to give this team that has gone through so much an outlet.
"I've turned this bunch loose," Tucker said a day before the school's graduation. "There are eight of them who are considered adults as of 8:30 Friday night, and they have earned that trust from me. I kind of let them do their own thing, and they take care of it. Trust me, when they get on the field and the game's on the line, they're all business."
Last April's tornado ripped the school apart, destroyed the baseball field and, worse, took away some lives and changed forever many more. The Tigers had just clinched a playoff spot and, following a 2010 season in which they finished as the state runners-up to Columbus, were among the favorites to win the state title.
Suddenly, though, baseball became simultaneously inconsequential and over-the-top important.
The Tigers were thrust into the national spotlight as the team without a home. That they lost in three tough games at Columbus in round two of the playoffs shouldn't have been a surprise, but the players felt they had somehow let people down back home.
"I don't think anybody should have to go through what we did with the tornado and the friends we lost," senior pitcher and infielder Corey Kafka said. "Last year we were playing for everybody else and we didn't play our game, and we were trying too hard to please everybody. It was tough, but it made us tougher."
Ringgold Principal Sharon Vaughn is perhaps the team's biggest fan, and not for the bragging rights a state title might bring. In this team she sees something much greater than athletic success.
"I have never seen such courage in young men," she said. "A year ago I told them they had to grow up and persevere, and they took it to heart. They had nothing at this time last year, nothing, and I've practically lived with these guys since April 27 . They've had courage when I didn't, and they fear nothing.
"We've let a group of young men lead us," she said.
Adversity hit again a week into this season when star player Matthew Crownover was lost for the duration because of elbow surgery. Suddenly, the team's best pitcher and one of its leading hitters was gone. With Crownover the Tigers were expected to be in the hotly contested title hunt. Without him they quickly became an afterthought in the state.
"It took a few days to get over losing Matthew because he meant so much to this team," said Tucker, whose team enters the title series at 29-7. "But once the guys regrouped, they decided they wouldn't let it hold them back. The different players that have stepped up all around, one through nine, has been great from that moment.
"The character that was built through adversity and the way they grew up and bonded helped this team in the long run. You could just see them growing up, and whatever situation is thrown at them they can handle it."
Kafka, the No. 3 pitcher last year, became the ace and has won nine games. Senior Adam Weldon moved up to No. 2 on the mound and also has nine wins. Junior Austin Parrish, who was slated to be a reliever, is 9-0 after winning consecutive deciding games in the quarterfinals and semifinals.
Sophomore Logan Baldwin became an outfield starter and has given the team a spark at the bottom of the batting order.
Winning on the road at hostile Gainesville last week, a team ranked as high as No. 3 nationally, was the latest example of the Tigers' ability to overcome adversity. Gainesville fans and even some players spewed obscenities and insults at Ringgold players, but when the Tigers showed during game two's loss they wouldn't be intimidated, the series changed.
"It wasn't going to affect those guys," Tucker said. "Once they saw that, it was over. They've been through so much, why would heckling get to them?"
Ringgold, riding catcher Andy Mochabee's two homers and Parrish's solid pitching, won 11-3 in the deciding game. When the Tigers got back home, a large group was waiting for them outside the field. It was a moment not lost on the players, who have a sense of what they mean to this rebuilding community.
"There were people I had never seen chanting my name and saying they were going to be here Monday to cheer us on," said Kafka, who knows that, despite the longtime success of the program, it has never won a state championship. "If we can pull through with this and be the first team to hang that banner up, it would mean a lot to this city and put a little reassurance into people who were hurt by the storm.
"It would kind of put an exclamation point on everything."