By Harrison Tarr
For the Observer
There are a multitude of reasons as to why fans of high school sports are so passionate and invested in supporting their local teams. A sense of community pride is certainly a driving force, the social aspect is important and the pageantry is unmatched; the reality that any team is capable of winning on any given day continues to reign supreme.
For supporters of the Opelika baseball program, this reality showed its face when the hometown Dawgs saw their season draw to a close at the hands of Stanhope Elmore in the first round of the AHSAA playoffs on Saturday afternoon.
The series loss came following a promising display in game one on Friday.
“We saw one of their best arms and swung it really well that first game,” said head coach Zachary Blatt. “We turned a couple of double plays to get out of some big innings.”
According to the skipper, senior pitcher JT McArdle — despite not having full command of his pitches — kept the Bulldogs in a position to succeed.
“(McArdle) did not have his best stuff,” Blatt said. “I think he walked more guys in that game than he had in a while, but he was able to pitch out of some trouble, we turned some double plays and ultimately came up with some big hits.”
McArdle’s efforts did not serve as the only example of noteworthy work from the red and black pitching staff; the Dawgs merely could not capitalize in game two.
“We just couldn’t find those hits in game two,” Blatt said. “Had opportunities in the second game on Friday night and the pitchers we threw gave us a chance. It was a three-run game in the seventh inning with bases loaded. We were right there on the edge, just couldn’t find a way to get it done.”
Despite being disappointed that his group was unable to advance in the tournament, Blatt commended the Dawgs for a valiant effort against a team he believes is poised to make a deep run.
“Stanhope Elmore, I think they have the potential to make a very good run,” Blatt said. “Unfortunately, we just happened to come up a little short. It was fun to watch those guys compete and give it everything they had.”
The head coach was also sure to praise his squad for their ability to grow and develop, despite having an entire season’s worth of work taken away from them amidst the pandemic in 2020.
“It was good to see these guys grow,” Blatt said. “From the COVID year when they were sophomores to bouncing back after last year, we won the area back-to-back years and unfortunately got knocked out of the playoffs in the first round against a very good team.”
When given the opportunity to reflect back on the 2022 campaign in its entirety, Blatt pointed out how much his guys have grown since taking the field in February.
“We went on a tough little stretch,” Blatt said. “We got beat by Auburn a couple of times earlier in the season and then came back after spring break and got things rolling at the time where we wanted to be playing our best ball.”
After spring break, the Dawgs were nearly untouchable.
“We ended up on a 12-2 stretch going into the end of the season,” Blatt said. “So we were playing our best ball when we needed to. We knocked off some good teams and competed.”
Per Blatt, competing was the central goal for the red and black throughout the entire season.
“The good thing about this team is that we competed in every single game,” Blatt said. “That’s what I was glad to see. There weren’t many games that we were just out of. We always had a chance and — ultimately — that’s what you look for.”
Although the 2022 campaign did not end the way the Opelika faithful might have hoped, the team’s 10 seniors have certainly left a legacy within the community and the program appears to be on the correct track. According to Blatt, the Diamond Dawgs will now get back to work with their respective summer ball teams and be back in the weight room come August.