Ringgold Tigers ready to shake ‘monkey off our backs’ in GHSA Class AAA title series

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Ringgold baseball coach Drew Walker will lead the Tigers into the GHSA Class AAA title series against Harlem starting Friday in Rome, Ga. Harlem has won seven state championships in program history, while the Tigers are seeking their first in their sixth trip to the title round.

RINGGOLD, Ga. — As the Ringgold High School baseball team approached the postseason, the coaching staff had a decision to make.

Should Drew Walker and his assistants address the absence of a state championship on the otherwise ultrasuccessful program's resumé, or should they let it go to maybe avoid putting any more pressure on the players as they try to win it all after five runner-up finishes for the Tigers?

They chose the first option, believing it best to get out in front of the issue as Ringgold tries to shake the label of "best program in the state without a title."

As the Tigers prepare to battle Harlem for the GHSA Class AAA championship at AdventHealth Stadium in Rome, Walker — a former Ringgold star — is glad the topic has been, as he put it, "brought out of the closet."

"It's been a big monkey on our backs for a long time and we've kept it silent for a long time, but we've brought it out this year," Walker said. "These guys have set a goal and we've talked about it, and it's not something these guys are going to back down from."

The best-of-three title series begins with a doubleheader at 5 p.m. Friday. If necessary, a third game would be played at noon Saturday.

As a program, Ringgold (32-7) has produced numerous college players and 15 Major League Baseball draftees, and rarely has a season ended without a playoff appearance. This is the Tigers' 30th playoff appearance, and 23 of those teams were among the final 16 in the bracket, eight made the semifinals, and now six have reached the finals. Before this season, the most recent championship round appearance was in 2012, when the Tigers lost to Columbus for the second time in three seasons with the title on the line.

So it's understandable why this weekend means so much to the Tigers, their fans and former players.

"We are looking to bust the door down," Walker said after last week's semifinal round sweep of Savannah Christian Prep at Bill Womack Field. "There is more anxiety to make it happen as you go because these kids look at it and think, with all the great players that have come through this program — if those guys couldn't do it, how can we?

"But this is just a different bunch. We know we're good enough to do it, and that's why we've talked about it so much, but they are also very loose and very confident. We've seen it this postseason with having to win two game threes to stay alive."

To get that elusive title, the Tigers have to get past a recent familiar playoff foe, Harlem, which has won seven state titles. The teams split series the past two seasons, with Ringgold winning a quarterfinal series in 2021 and Harlem coming out on top in last year's second round.

The teams have been ranked No. 1 or No. 2 most of this season, with the Bulldogs (33-1) holding the top spot until being upset in their final regular-season region game. Harlem's Jimmie Lewis is one of the country's winningest coaches, having celebrated victory No. 800 earlier this year, and he has a deep, experienced and talented team.

Shortstop Tryston McCladdie is headed to Clemson and bats leadoff in a dangerous lineup that includes Will Holder (also one of the team's starting pitchers), Emery Burnett and Tyler Simmons. The Bulldogs eliminated Ringgold rival Gordon Lee in the quarterfinals by scores of 2-1 and 7-4.

"We know them pretty well," Walker said, "and they are very good and well coached. They will not beat themselves, so our guys are well aware of the challenge."

Ringgold counters with one of the state's top pitching staffs, headed by senior right-hander Ross Norman, who has pitched a no-hitter and a one-hitter in his past two starts with 23 strikeouts, junior Sebastian Haggard, undefeated No. 3 starter Jackson Black and closer Sam Crew.

As Walker said, his players are entering the finals with anxiety. They see it as an opportunity.

"It's really cool. I never thought a small town like Ringgold, especially with me playing on it, would be able to go to the finals," said Crew, a senior. "To have a chance — and to know we are fully capable of winning it — is a crazy feeling."

Added Norman, who unleashed a wide smile when asked what a championship would mean: "I can't even describe the feeling it would be to win it all. I mean, this is the sixth time Ringgold High School has made it, so to win one would be incredible."

Contact Lindsey Young at lyoung@timesfreepress.com.