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Thursday May 26th, 2016 5:11AM

Baseball: Red Elephants' right combo leads way to playoff surge

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
GAINESVILLE -- So what has keyed Gainesville baseball and its sweep to the Class AAAAA semifinals?

Is it pitching? Is it defense? Is it hitting? Or something else entirely?

Yes.

Actually there is no simple answer as to why the Red Elephants are hitting their stride at the perfect time -- just suffice to say a lot of factors are adding up to a pretty impressive whole.

"In past years we've had the best team in the regular season; this year we've caught fire in the playoffs," Gainesville senior pitcher/outfielder Michael Gettys said. "Not that we were bad in the regular season this year, but we've really started to put it together now."

There are some pretty obvious factors that have sparked three straight playoff series sweeps and have the Red Elephants (26-6) set for a semifinal showdown with Houtson County (starting with a doubleheader on Monday at Ivey-Watson Field):

-- Gettys dominant pitching as a Game 1 starter

-- Solid defensive work from each position

-- 1-2 players (and it has varied in each series) leading the offense

But it is perhaps the little things that are making the biggest difference -- facets that are only magnified under the intensity of the postseason.

Factors such as veteran leadership.

"Experience helps a ton," Gainesville coach Jeremy Kemp said. "These guys know what it takes to win at this level because we've been there."

Four seniors -- Gettys, Sims Griffith, Drew Satterfield and Chandler Newton -- have each had key moments in the playoffs. Gettys work on the mound and plate has been instrumental, while Griffith's play at shortstop and offense have been just as key (including a seven-hit, seven-RBI day in a second-round sweep of Sequoyah). Designated hitter Satterfield has also produced timely hits, while Newton stepped in and gave Gainesville a huge boost with his pitching in relief of starter Caleb Whitenton to help the Red Elephants secure a sweep of Starr's Mill in the quarterfinals.

"This has always been a special group," Kemp said. "Every one of those guys has been huge for us."

Team speed has also been huge for the Red Elephants. And while home runs from players like Gettys and Brandon Sewell catch the eye, it is the constant pressure of speed on the basepaths that has proven perhaps a bigger thorn to opposing pitchers and defenses.

"We've got speed at the top and bottom of the line-up," said Griffith, who acts as leadoff man and is followed by fleet-footed second baseman Luke Maddox, while Gettys, at the No. 3 spot, has 30 stolen bases this season. Meanwhile, Drew Wright, at the No. 9 spot, is just as quick, and has helped set the table for a number of Gainesville hitters. "Not many teams beat the ball out like we can, and that puts a lot of stress on the other team."

"We just want to get on base and be aggressive," Gettys added.

That aggression has not led to free swinging at the plate, however.

"We've got guys being patient and getting on base," Kemp said. "They're forcing walks and making pitchers work."

Perhaps most important, when things have gone wrong -- in the field or at the plate -- Gainesville has not allowed any one mistake to snowball.

"I think they're doing a better job taking blame and asking what can I do to make the situation better," Kemp said.

Griffith puts it another way.

"In baseball you've just got to flush everything; you can't dwell on things from game to game or inning to inning or moment to moment," Griffith said. "This team is just good under pressure. Part of that is the schedule we've played, and we've played in a lot of close games."

Indeed, a tough Region 8-AAAAA slate and a mid-season trek to compete in the National Invitational Baseball Tournament in Cary, N.C., are now paying dividends.

"We may have played the toughest schedule a Gainesville team has ever played this season," Kemp said. "We have faced some incredible pitching this season."

Those experiences have only added to a laser-like focus that has helped Gainesville snuff out opponents' rallies or pounce on their mistakes.

"This group just gets it," Kemp said. "At the start of the season, I asked the guys what the goal was -- and it was clear it was a state championship. I asked them if we could win it tomorrow, and, of course, the answer was 'no.' So we decided that we just have to focus on what we can do to increase our chances of getting there every day."

Those chances continue to increase with each game -- though Gainesville isn't about to start talking of championship series, not with another series up first.

"We know we have to win four more games, but we can only do it one game at a time," Griffith said. "We have a lot of chemistry, and we're all just focused on one step at a time."

Check the chemistry thing as another plus for Gainesville.

"They just enjoy being around each other, and they're having a good time still," Kemp said. "They're not ready to be done."

With so much going right for the Red Elephants, the good times may keep rolling indeed.
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