Hillgrove coach Dave Richardson managed to do it in a four-year span.
After winning just five games in the Hawks’ inaugural season of 2007, it didn’t take Richardson long to establish the ingredients he needed to build a championship-contending program — mastering the arts of pitching, hitting and fielding — and the Hillgrove came just three outs away from winning it all this year.
Not only did Richardson have talent this season, he had players who could persevere in difficult situations.
Pitching, hitting and fielding — plus perseverance — all attributed to Hillgrove’s 29-9 record and Region 4AAAAA championship this season. The Hawks scrapped their way through the state tournament, pulling out a few come-from-behind wins along the way.
“At times, our season was like an emotional roller coaster because we always dug ourselves out of a hole,” said Richardson, the 2011 Marietta Daily Journal/Cobb County Baseball Coach of the Year, “but our kids seemed to show perseverance and get us back into the game, and that’s a credit to them.”
Hillgrove rallied from five runs down in the rubber game of its quarterfinal series against Mill Creek, eventually winning 7-6 in nine innings. The Hawks also came back in Game 2 in their state finals against Parkview before winning 13-10 in 10 innings.
The momentum of that game with Parkview carried over into the third and final game, where Hillgrove had a two-run lead in the top of the seventh inning.
That’s how close the Hawks came to winning a state championship as Parkview got stubborn and defeated Hillgrove 21-10 by scoring 13 runs on 11 hits in the frame.
It wasn’t a gracious ending for Hillgrove, which prides itself on limiting errors and free baserunners, but Richardson admitted afterwards that the Panthers won with their bats and gave them their due credit.
He also gives credit to his own team for showing their new rivals in Region 4AAAAA that they belonged, even as a first-year Class AAAAA member.
At the end of the regular season, Hillgrove shut out Kennesaw Mountain 15-0 after the Mustangs had pulled out an important win over North Cobb the previous game. The Hawks went on to oust defending state champion Harrison 11-1 to secure their region title.
Richardson said the 2011 season’s successes might not have been possible without his two assistants, hitting coach Jason Evans and infield coach Wes Ellis. The trio spent countless hours on individual and team defense and developed a power-hitting lineup to go with their solid pitching staff.
Hillgrove showed signs of being a strong unit as early as last season, but when the Hawks lost their top two starting pitchers to injury, they discovered they didn’t have much depth behind them. Even though they finished 24-6, they only made it to the second round of the playoffs.
Last season’s younger pitchers grew from the experience and emerged into solid starters this season. Tyler Graham went 9-1 as a starter, while Ben Lumsden, who missed last season to injury, also turned in a nine-win season. Having depth in the bullpen also helped.
“The bullpen provided quality innings,” Richardson said. “We didn’t have to overextend our starters during the earlier part of the year.”
Timely home runs also defined Hillgrove’s season, and the Hawks hit plenty of them during the postseason.
“That was another thing that energized the kids through our playoff run,” Richardson said. They always hit that big home run in a game, and the kids fed off of that.”
Tucker Ehmig hit four home runs in the playoffs, but his most memorable one came when he hit a game-tying blast in the seventh inning of their third game against Mill Creek. Justin Motley hit a grand slam in the second game against Parkview to help Hillgrove rally from a six-run deficit and Robert Stewart then came through with a walk-off 10th-inning home run in the same game to extend the series.