The Millbrook High School baseball team was one of the last teams standing in 2014, falling to Richmond County in the regionals.
The challenge for head coach Austin James is to rebuild a roster that lost eight regular starters from a team that went 20-10. That’s no easy task, but the Wildcats aren’t using inexperience as an excuse. Their goal is still the same – make a deep run in the state playoffs.
“The good thing about getting so close,” James said, “We had a lot of guys in the program who were hungry to get back to work.”
It started back in September, months before the players even picked up a ball or a bat. James had his guys in the weight room or outside running, all wanting to return to the regional, looking to finish what they started one year ago. The few guys who are still around, James said, realized just how close they were and strive to get back.
“Guys have really been working hard for several months. Now we are just trying to put all the pieces together. We played a tough, nonconference schedule and that will help us down the line.”
The Wildcats are 2-0 in the Cap-8 conference (4-4 overall). When James talks about putting pieces together, he realizes there aren’t a lot of familiar pieces to work with. One of those returnees is senior Alex Royalty, a utility player who had a major role in that deep run a year ago. He’ll be counted on to lead a roster of changing parts.
James said Millbrook hasn’t had the same lineup twice this season, as he attempts to find the right combination.
“We’re getting close. … We’re getting better every game.”
An injury during the Bobby Murray Invitational Tournament caused James to shuffle his bullpen, but he said the tournament was a good opportunity to experiment. One player he can count on is Royalty, who said his teammates are driven to succeed after coming so close a year ago. Royalty and returning first baseman Spencer Williams have inherited the leadership roles.
“Spencer and myself have just been trying to motivate the guys to come closer as a team,” Royalty said. “We’re trying to bring the chemistry that we had last year to this team. We’ve been trying to teach these young guys, with a lot of talent and little experience, is what really matters is playing for the team.”
Millbrook started the season 0-3 against three quality opponents.
After last season’s success, James said it would be easy for this team to get down in the dumps after a slow start. That hasn’t been the case. He said this group has a lot of fun playing and has shown a lot of resiliency. For example, after a 14-4 opening season loss at Pinecrest, he noted how easy it would have been for the guys to realize they don’t have the pieces from last season and mail it in. But James pointed out they haven’t gotten down on themselves.
“When we lose, we have to figure out what we have to do to get better and not let it happen again,” James said. “That’s been fun to coach.”
Royalty said what he likes about this group is “we have a bunch of leaders, who don’t know they are leaders yet.”
The jump from JV to varsity has been an adjustment for a lot of the players, Royalty said. Once that adjustment is made, he feels the Wildcats can be just as good, if not better, than last year.
“I’m excited for the challenge coming the second half of the season,” Royalty said. “The whole mentality with trying to win and going for third in the state again is you have to be relaxed to play this game.”
NOTES: James said the format of the Bobby Murray Tournament, from a traditional tournament setup to a predetermined field, was done because a team dropped out of the field late.
“We were down to seven teams,” James said. “So what we did as the host was find some opponents who would come and play us who weren’t part of the tournament field. Then we set the other teams up as a round-robin.”