HOMERVILLE -- A lot of things have changed in the past year for Clinch County baseball. But one thing is still the same: the Panthers keep winning.
Clinch had been Region 1-A champions the last two years, and this year, despite turning over nearly the entire roster, the Panthers ended the regular season on top of the region hill yet again.
"I'm proud of how this team has done this year," first-year Clinch head coach Trent Hatton said. "We didn't have a lot of experience coming back, but we've been a scrappy little bunch that's worked hard, won some big games, and ended up winning the region."
Clinch opens the state playoffs Friday against Dooly County. The Panthers and Bobcats will play a doubleheader Friday, starting at 3 p.m., with the if-necessary game at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Clinch came into the 2004 season as the defending Class A state champions, after an undefeated 10-game playoff run last May. But that run came with nearly all seniors, and as Hatton looked at his team on the first day of practice, he saw a much different ballclub than he'd seen holding up the state championship trophy last May.
"We won state last season, but just about every starter was a senior," Hatton said.
Hatton also didn't see the icon of Clinch County baseball. Cecil Barber, who'd coached the Panthers for over 25 years, retired from his baseball duties after last season's championship (Barber has since left the school, becoming the football coach at Jeff Davis). Barber turned the baseball duties over to Hatton, his longtime assistant.
"It's been hard not having Coach Barber around, because he knows so much. He's the best baseball guy I've ever been around," Hatton said. "I'm having to learn little things about coaching (off the field) that he just knew. He's a great coach, and I've learned a lot from him. We still talk on the phone, and I ask him for advice. And we haven't changed anything from the way he did things."
But while most of the team was gone, and the coach was gone, and the team was predicted to compete for fourth in their own region, and Clinch only had 11 players on varsity, there was still some talent, though mostly untested.
"Some of these kids have really stepped up for us, kids who hadn't gotten a lot of playing time," Hatton said.
The best of the group has been shortstop Brett Denmark, who leads Clinch in nearly every offensive category. Denmark is batting .459 with six home runs, six doubles, three triples, 29 runs scored and 16 stolen bases. First baseman/pitcher Lee Douglas, one of the few returning starters, is batting .348 with three homers 12 runs scored and six stolen bases. Outfielder Terron Skipper is batting .328 and has scored 10 runs and stolen 10 bases.
"Brett's just been outstanding this year," Hatton said. "Terron Skipper hadn't played much, but he's hit the ball well for us. So has Lee Douglas. Other than that, though, we don't have a lot of high batting averages. We're just a scrappy team that has been able to score runs when we need to."
On the mound, Douglas, a left-hander, has gone 6-2 with a 1.78 ERA and 106 strikeouts in 55 innings. Hatton's also been pleased with No. 2 starter Cliff Corbitt, who has teamed with Douglas to form a good 1-2 pitching punch.
"Lee and Cliff have both thrown the ball well for us," Hatton said. "Both pitched some last year, and it's helped a lot having them back. Our pitching's a big reason we won as many games as we did this year."
Hatton says Dooly will be a challenge, despite its No. 4 seed.
"They've got two good pitchers and a lot of speed," he said. "What's killed them this year, their coach says, is sometimes they play and sometimes they don't. We expect them to show up Friday. They hit the ball pretty good. Their center fielder (covers a lot of ground)."
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