Dalton Etheridge is one of several ELCA players responsible for leading the Chargers to a school-record 24-game winning streak coming into this afternoon’s first-round state tournament series against Landmark Christian. (Jeff Hurndon Photography)
McDONOUGH — When interviewed at the beginning of the season, Dalton Etheridge expressed confidence that his ballclub, despite several graduation losses being replaced with new faces, could eventually play its way into championship form.
But as Eagle’s Landing Christian’s baseball team gets set to host Landmark Christian in a 4:30 p.m. first round Class A state playoffs series, Etheridge admits that even he couldn’t anticipate the kind of success his Chargers have had this season.
“It’s been great,” Etheridge said. “I mean, it’s been a blast. This year, it’s just been so much fun. It’s everything I would have ever wanted my senior year to be. I knew we could be good, and probably get back to the state tournament again, but this is a lot more than what I expected.”
The “this” Etheridge is referring to is the fact that the Chargers are riding into this year’s state tournament on a 24-game winning streak — the longest in ELCA baseball history.
“I definitely didn’t expect a 24-game winning streak,” Etheridge said. “I expected us to compete and be up there with Mount Paran and King’s Ridge and the other big named schools in Class A.”
ELCA has done that, and then some.
In fact, the last time the Chargers lost was the first time they played — a 4-1 loss to perennial Class AAAA contender Redan. ELCA came out the next day to defeat Mount Paran 1-0 in a pitchers duel at the Dugout Tournament. And from there, the winning ways have yet to cease.
But if you peruse through box scores of each of the last 24 victories, you’ll notice that not too many blowouts abound. In fact nine of ELCA’s wins have come by just two runs or less, including a pair of 3-2 wins against Pace Academy — the latter, a 10-inning nailbiter on senior night.
That’s enough to keep ELCA coach Doug Campbell from relaxing too much, as his squad gets ready to play a very familiar foe in the War Eagles.
“Well, we definitely know them. That’s the good thing,” said Campbell, who is seeking his fifth state championship in the last four years as both softball and baseball coach at ELCA. “We’re very familiar with them.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that Campbell and company are jumping up and down to face Landmark again — despite them carrying the No. 16 seed in this season’s playoff bracket.
“It’s definitely not who we would choose to play,” he said. “It’s just a rivalry game for us. We’ve beaten them a few times lately, the last six or seven times we’ve played. But they’ve pretty much been all close games. It’s probably one of the more quality teams we can play in this round.”
Since 2011, ELCA has gone 4-3 against Landmark, having won three straight against the Region 5-A foe, including an 8-3 victory earlier in the regular season. But before that, there was a stretch where the War Eagles took three out of four from ELCA. And in the Chargers’ other two wins in the current 3-game streak, the scores have been 7-6 and 2-1.
Such closely contested games aren’t new to Campbell’s squad though. The Chargers have benefited from solid pitching with Etheridge, Cole Ganopulos, who pitched the finals against Mount Paran in the 2013 championship season, and closer Hunter Sowell.
The three-headed monster on the mound is something Campbell believes gives his team a decided advantage — especially in the playoffs, and considering the slight decrease in scoring this season.
“Our pitching has been very solid,” Campbell said. “I’ve been pleased with that. We don’t have the firepower with the bats that we had last season. We’ve played a lot of close games. We’ve gotten what we’ve needed as far as clutch play. In a lot of these, we’re just good enough to win the games, so we’re not overconfident at all coming into Landmark.
“We realize we’re subject to lose a game at any time.”
Campbell feels confident enough, however, in the names and faces that have emerged this season. Including senior Matthew Hammers — a lefty pitcher who hasn’t seen much work on the mound, but has produced big time at the plate, sporting a batting average north of .430.
“He’s been our first baseman, and he’s a great defensive first baseman for us, and he’s been really solid hitting for us down the stretch,” Campbell said.
The coach also spoke highly of catcher D.J. Cooper and third baseman Jalen Smith.
As for Etheridge, the ankle injury that kept him from playing in the Class A football semifinals last December has steadily healed, despite a slight setback in the middle of the season where he rolled the ankle and had to sit out one game.
Etheridge said he feels no pain now, and that winning a second straight state title would go a long way to make up for missing out on the same milestone as ELCA football’s quarterback.
“Oh yeah,” Etheridge said. “I guess it would definitely make up for that. That would be awesome. No words really could describe it.”
But first things first for the Jacksonville State signee — Landmark.
“We can’t get complacent and think we’ll beat Landmark just because they’re the 16 seed,” Etheridge said. “One thing we need to do is concentrate only on Landmark, and play every game here on out like it’s a state championship game.”