GAINESVILLE — Recent weeks have seen the North Hall baseball team survive more twists-and-turns, ups-and-downs and white-knuckle moments than a rider on Disney World's Space Mountain.
“One of the more interesting months I’ve had in my 11 years here,” Trojans coach Trent Mongero said. “It’s hard to say exactly what the reasons were but we had some adversity hit us at the worst time of the season. I can’t say I wasn’t a little concerned.”
It all started when the Trojans were “rewarded” for the first time in program history with a No. 1 ranking as they headed into a series finale with East Hall.
They were 11-0 in Region 7-AAA and needed, what appeared at that time a cinch, just three wins over their last seven to clinch the region crown.
“We felt good about where we were,” Mongero recalled. “I don’t always put a lot of stock in rankings, but it’s nice to be recognized. But it’s also hard to play with expectations when you’re not used to that.
“We’ve always considered ourselves more of the underdog type of program. Having a bullseye on us like that I think changed their focus a little.”
They responded that night against the Vikings with a 3-0 shutout loss. It ignited a five-game losing streak, including a sweep at the hands of eventual region title-winner Greater Atlanta Christian the following week. And they closed out the regular season by losing six of their last seven overall and dropped to a No. 3 seed for the Class AAA playoffs.
“Again, it’s hard to pinpoint any one thing,” Mongero said. “Most of those losses were nip-and-tuck games. Two of the losses to GAC were in the final at-bat in the seventh inning. We were close.”
So when the Class AAA bracket revealed the Trojans would have to hit the road against a Pace Academy team ranked in the top five at the time and among the classification’s offensive leaders, it looked like their once-promising season would come to a quick and bitter end.
Pace Academy kept the uphill climb going, rallying for a 7-3 Game 1 victory that gave North Hall seven losses in eight games and put the Trojans' season on the brink.
“I think I was pretty concerned at that point, but we had a team meeting between games and I told them their backs are against the wall and in a corner as far as they could get. The question was how were they going to respond,” Mongero said. “Our kids have always played better, for whatever reason, when people didn’t think they could do something, and I kind of saw a spark from them.”
They answered the bell with a 4-1 victory to stay alive in Game 2 and then held off a late-inning rally by the Knights the next day in a thrilling 6-5 win in Game 3 to clinch the series. They rode that momentum to a dominating second-round road sweep of Southeast Bulloch last week, 11-3 and 5-1, to advance to their third Elite Eight berth in the last five years.
So what changed?
“I think just winning that second game against Pace. Winning is what snapped them out of it,” Mongero said. “We felt we were a good team all along. That win gave them the confidence back that they were a good team.
“We fell into a slump across the board, and then they were disappointed they didn’t win the region when they were so close. They just needed to get over all that and move past it.
“We told them after the Pace series that those expectations (of being No. 1) were water under the bridge and didn’t exist anymore. I think they have dealt with that emotional disappointment and showed their toughness since the second game with Pace. The only thing left at this time of the year is just playing your rear ends off. They have done that.”
Whatever zen the Trojans (23-11) have channeled since losing their playoff opener must continue on Thursday when they travel to Ringgold in the quarterfinals. The Tigers (29-6) own the most wins in Class AAA and have scored the second-most runs (291) behind No. 1 Redan (294) of the eight teams still alive in the playoffs.
However, North Hall pitching limited Southeast Bulloch, which came into their second round series as the highest-scoring team in Class AAA, to just four runs in the sweep.
Does something have to give?
“Our pitching was phenomenal against Southeast,” Mongero said. “We also played great defense, which was one of the problems (during the late season slump). We will certainly need that kind of effort again. Ringgold is the real deal. There is no accident to them having the most wins.”
The Tigers also have been nearly unbeatable at home, going 16-3 with their only regular season home losses to playoff teams North Murray (AAA) and Heritage, Catoosa (AAAA) which advanced to the Elite Eight in Class AAAA. However, they were pushed to a third game against Appling County in the second round, which the two teams’ did not complete until Monday forcing a short turnaround to start the quarterfinals.
North Hall is a respectable 10-7 overall away from Jody Davis Field but has won four straight on the road in the playoffs.
“These guys will adjust,” Mongero said. “I don’t think the road will impact them at this point. It’s always nice to be able to sleep in your own bed, but it’s just rewarding to know that we’re in the Elite Eight again.
“It’s also been rewarding to see them get off the dirt and respond the way they have since the first game against Pace. This will be our toughest series so far, no question. But in our minds we’re no where finished with what we want to accomplish.”
NORTH HALL at RINGGOLD
-- WHEN: Thursday 5 p.m. (DH); Friday 2 p.m.
-- WHERE: Ringgold
-- NORTH HALL (23-11, No. 3 seed Region 7-AAA): swept Southeast Bulloch in the 2nd round, 11-3 and 5-1
-- RINGGOLD (29-6, No. 1 seed Region 6-AAA): Defeated Appling County 2-1 in 2nd round, 4-0, 6-12, 12-1
-- NOTABLE: North Hall has regained its swagger at just the right time. The Trojans had lost 7 of 8 after a Game 1 loss to Pace Academy in the first round. Now, they have won four straight road playoff games. ... Third time in five seasons the Trojans have advanced to the quarterfinal round. ... Southeast Bulloch came into last week’s series as the highest scoring team in Class AAA averaging over 10 runs a game but were limited to just four total runs. ... Ringgold is 16-3 at home on the season and leads Class AAA in wins (29).
-- NEXT: winner of the Calhoun-Lovett series in semifinals