BY WIL CREWS
Grab your bag of peanuts or your box of popcorn, dust off that old stadium seat and get ready — it’s baseball season in East Alabama.
Like all Opelika High School athletics teams this year, the Opelika baseball team is preparing for life in the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s (AHSAA) highest division — 7A.
Fresh off a class 6A area championship last season, the Bulldogs are off to a 4-2 start in their 2023 campaign.
The move up to 7A poses a challenge to the Bulldogs, but the teams in their new area are far from new opponents. Opelika’s new area consists of Opelika High School, Auburn High School, Central-Phenix City and Smiths Station.
“[The area is] definitely a challenge,” said head coach Zach Blatt. “It’s probably one of the toughest baseball areas in the state of Alabama.”
While Opelika has regularly played the regional rivals over the course of its history in 6A, the games against the Tigers, Red Devils and Panthers have one key difference in 2023.
“We have continued to play these teams year in and year out since we have been in 6A, and now the games just count,” Blatt said. “They carry a little more weight. We are looking forward to the challenge and seeing what we can do.”
The Opelika team that captured the 6A area title in 2022 was an experience-laden one. This year, the Dawgs roster six seniors, a handful of juniors and four sophomores on the 17-man squad.
“We are not overly experienced,” Blatt said. “We replaced a lot of seniors from last year. I think we graduated nine or 10.”
While the Bulldogs will not be able to rely as heavily on their experience in 2023, last year provided quality opportunities to many of the players, leading to Blatt already defining the team’s strengths and weaknesses to this point in the season.
“We do return some arms from last year that ended up logging some quality innings for us,” Blatt said. “So I feel like we will compete better on the defensive side of the ball, pitching. Offensively, that’s where we are having to replace the most.”
While Blatt and his staff attempt to round the offense into form during the early season, the Bulldogs will keep their ultimate goal always in mind.
“If you ask any team, the ultimate goal is to be holding up the blue trophy at the end of the year,” Blatt said.
But the chase for a championship will be anything but a distraction for what Blatt defines as a tightly bonded team.
“A strength of this team are the relationships,” Blatt said. “I think this is a very close knit group that play for each other. We have been talking about a ‘we over me mentality’ and I think the guys have really bought into that. They are playing for themselves, obviously, but putting the team above and playing for each other. Our ultimate goal is to win a game regardless of your individual outcome.”
According to Blatt, the Bulldogs aren’t getting caught up in their hot start to the season. They all know the real games begin when area play starts.
“But we have to take it one thing at a time, we got to get better from day to day and week to week, and ultimately when area play comes we have got to be playing our best baseball,” Blatt said.
Regardless of how the 2023 season shakes out, Blatt expressed belief in his squad’s effort and commitment, and looks forward to witnessing the team’s journey.
“The thing I’m most excited about with this group is the relationships they have on and off the field,” he said. “And they show up and work every day, they try to get better each and every day; I will say that about this group.”