ALEXANDRIA — The Alexandria baseball team's road to semistate began in Tennessee.
Or, more acurately, on a bus on the way to Columbia, Tenn.
“It brings everybody together,” sophomore second baseman Kole Stewart said. “You have to ride on a bus together for forever. It takes a long time to get down there, and then you stay in a hotel together. You’re just together the whole time. So it’s really good for team building.”
And chemistry is really good for team success.
If there's one thing each of the recent area teams that have played for (and often won) a state championship share in common, it's a tight bond.
The Lapel and Liberty Christian boys basketball teams that won duel titles in 2016 cared so little about who got the credit, the players openly cheered each other on through semistate and the state finals.
Daleville baseball (2016, 2018) and Frankton boys basketball (2015, 2017) advanced to the state finals twice within a three-year span with very different rosters. The common denominator was an unselfish attitude that saw players eagerly accept their respective roles for the betterment of the team.
The same was true for Elwood's state-finalist softball team in 2017. The Panthers featured a Miss Softball finalist in pitcher Mackenzie Bryan, whose humble nature and constant praise of her teammates set the tone for the whole roster.
The Tigers hope to join their ranks Saturday with a win against Whiting (15-11) in the Class 2A North Semistate at Kokomo Municipal Stadium.
They certainly seem to have similar DNA.
The four-game series in the Volunteer State gave Alexandria (27-6) a few extra live reps while many teams back in Indiana were still sheltering from the late-March cold, wind and precipitation.
The Tigers returned north with a 2-2 record and invaluable intangible benefits.
“More than the games, it’s just the bonding thing,” coach Jeff Closser said. “When we do that, the parents go, but they’re not allowed to be with their kids. It’s all team-oriented stuff. We go eat together. We do everything together, and I think it helps bond the team. So, as you can see, they’re pretty close.”
They're also laser-focused.
The Tigers have outscored their four postseason opponents 45-10, and they've continued a year-long tradition of getting everybody involved.
Stewart was a hero in the 5-3 win against Tipton in the sectional semifinals, going 2-for-4 with a double and two RBI. Senior Trey Stokes and junior Brayton Gaines pounded out a pair of hits in the 19-0 demolition of Taylor for the sectional title. Stokes finished with a team-high three RBI, and junior Rylan Metz belted a two-run homer.
Five days later, it was juniors Cade Vernetti and Brennan Morehead leading the offense with two hits in a 6-2 victory against Delphi that also saw Vernetti drive in a pair of runs.
That set up the 15-5 victory against Wapahani in the regional final during which Stokes set the tone with a lead-off homer and nearly everybody got in on the act. Stokes and fellow senior Miller Abernathy each finished 3-for-4 with four RBI. While Stewart, Vernetti, Morhead, Metz and Gaines each added two hits and a total of five RBI.
This is not a lineup that's easily pitched around. Need further evidence? Junior Nick Williams, unmentioned in the above paragraphs, leads the team with nearly 50 RBI on the season.
“If one person’s having a bad day, another person’s having a great day,” Stewart said. “That’s how our team is. There’s never a day where we’re all off.”
Baseball is a game of random events. It's often the ball that determines the outcome of a play rather than the hitter or fielders.
There's no sure way to defeat that chaos, but the best assets in battle are depth and a strong support group.
The Tigers have both, including a title-hungry community that has been waiting 21 years for another state championship run.
“It’s pretty cool, and it’s been a long time since we’ve done anything like this,” Closser said. “So, hopefully, we can get it done.”