By Brian Paglia
One more time, Stockbridge baseball coach Johnny Burch had to look at his team after a loss -- this time a 5-0 defeat to No. 5 Alcovy in a Region 4-AAAA game Friday -- and extract the silver lining from it.
This was the Tigers' third loss in a row. It dropped Stockbridge to 3-7 in the region standings. While not mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, Burch conceded a perfect finish is necessary to make the state tournament. But games against No. 2 Ola, Griffin and then Jonesboro loom.
"The odds are stacked against us," Burch said.
This was the Tigers' third loss in a row. It dropped Stockbridge to 9-8 overall on the season. Wait! There's a silver lining -- a sign of progress in Stockbridge baseball, a move toward winning baseball that's eluded Stockbridge for almost seven years.
The Tigers' nine victories are their most since 2003, which happened to be the program's last winning season. So despite a suddenly faded postseason outlook, the pursuit of a winning season, to end the Tigers' perceived drought of futility, still holds significance.
"We've still got a goal in place where we can have a winning season," Burch said. "That's a big goal for us to trip to keep moving in the right direction and try to finish out with a winning year."
Last season, in Burch's first with Stockbridge, the Tigers won just six games. But Burch augmented the program by developing its lower levels.
Though Stockbridge will miss senior pitcher Chris Hallett and his big-game experience, four pitchers with valuable experience return next season. Burch brought eighth graders from Stockbridge Middle School onto the junior varsity team to expedite their development. Burch says some may even push for playing time next season as freshmen, which would foster more competition amongst the roster. Participation in offseason hitting increased.
The difference in a year is clear.
"I don't want to say we're night and day," Burch said, "because if we were, we'd probably be in the thick of the playoff hunt, but a lot of progress has been made. We were deficient in many, many areas last year. While we're not where we want to be by any means, we've improved greatly. I think we've improved the overall character and quality of the kids in our program."
Burch moved from Atkins County to take the Stockbridge job for several reasons. He had connections with former county athletic director Justin White. He wanted to leave the sporadic competition at the Class A school he was coaching at the time. Stockbridge offered a perfect middle ground between his wife's family in North Georgia and his own in South Georgia.
"Everything just kind of worked out," Burch said. "We felt it was the right move at the right time."
The only thing missing is winning baseball. Stockbridge will return to that quest Monday when it travels to Ola. And with a new classification next year and a strong finish to this season, Burch hopes his Stockbridge program can have a new outlook soon.
"I think we're definitely moving forward," Burch said. "Hoping to end on a positive note in our last seven games, have a big summer league into preparation for next year."