MOULTRIE – Not many high school coaches in any sport can feel good about being seven – perhaps six before the night was over – games under .500 heading into the postseason.
Colquitt County High won for just the ninth time in 2019 taking Thursday’s Game 1 from Tift County High 10-0 in six innings. While the Packers and Blue Devils played out the Region 1-7A schedule with everyone’s postseason position set, Tony Kirkland had something extra-special to take home.
Kirkland, in his 10th season leading the Packers and 16th overall in high school baseball, needed those nine wins to reach the milestone of 300. Not counting Game 2 Thursday, seven of Colquitt’s wins this season are in Region 1-7A. Even with six, the Packers were secure in second place in the league standings and are going to stay on Ike Aultman Field at Jerry Croft Stadium for the GHSA Class 7A opening round.
In all six seasons Kirkland led South Effingham High’s baseball club, the Mustangs won 21 games or better. His teams reached the state semifinals four times there, and Kirkland had the distinction of coaching future Houston Astros World Series champion Josh Reddick.
At Colquitt County since 2010, Kirkland has two 22-win seasons, and one of those teams in 2011 reached the state semifinals.
Before all of this, Kirkland was an assistant on Jerry Croft’s two Packer state championship teams (1997, 2003).
Most of his and the team’s success in 2019 was about Kirkland placing the baseball in the hands of senior pitcher Trace Eakins. He won his fifth decision with a two-hit complete-game. In six innings, it wasn’t about overpowering the Blue Devils … it hasn’t been all season. The bending curve ball did strike out four from Tift County, but nobody got on base from an error. Eakins walked three, so there were five runners left on base.
Blue Devil third baseman Owen Manning got both the hits. There were nine balls hit in the air, all caught, and two of those were in foul territory by first baseman Henry Daniels.
Kirkland’s spent all season looking for the right lineup, and an example of that is how Daniels recently won the starting job at first base. There were two freshmen in the starting lineup who were not opening day starters: shortstop Cannon Whatley and outfielder Pershaun Fann.
One of the few returning starters, J.T. Whatley, homered for the first time at Packer Park and for the second time this season.
But overall for the Packers, they had a hard time scoring on Tift County’s Mason Avant through three innings. The Blue Devils had major error issues, and Colquitt tried to take advantage in the top of the third. With Cannon Whatley on base and running on a pitch to J.T., there was no play at second on a ball hit in play … and a throwing error put runners on the corners.
Avant was able to retire the side with the score 0-0, and it would be five runners left on base by the Packers in three turns.
But the home-team bats produced as the game wore on. Two Packers were on base to start the home fourth, and catcher Callon Kubiak’s bunt was an easy play to first, only the fielder could not find the ball. That’s one run in.
Senior Reese Bledsoe, who had an RBI when Colquitt lost 3-2 at Thomas County-Central on a walk-off Wednesday, bunted two in scoring position for the top of the order. Senior outfielder Tucker Hathcock began a game with three RBI on a base hit.
Though the second out was made at home plate, Cannon Whatley singled making it 3-0.
The Packers loaded the bases with no outs in the home fifth, and that meant the end for Avant. Daniels and Fann were aboard from singles, and Bledsoe drove them home for 5-0.
J.T. Whatley led off the home sixth going deep. The game ended when Colquitt scored four more times before Tift could get three outs. Daniels second hit was an RBI triple plating Lucas Tostenson. From off the bench, Jacob Walden’s single drove in one, and Hathcock singled for the final two RBI.
• Other notes from the Colquitt-TCC game Wednesday, Daniels had two hits as did Bledsoe. Freshman Cameron Summerlin pitched five complete innings with four strikeouts, one walk and four hits allowed.