Pope reaches final hurdle in quest for state title
by Carlton D. White
cwhite@mdjonline.com
May 24, 2013 11:59 PM | 2456 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
After a pair of quarterfinal-round exits, Stephen Skruck and his Pope teammates can achieve their ultimate goal by getting past Greenbrier in the Class AAAAAA state championship. The Greyhounds, four years removed from their last title, will host the Wolf Pack for a doubleheader today and a potential third game Monday.
<br>Staff photo by Laura Moon
After a pair of quarterfinal-round exits, Stephen Skruck and his Pope teammates can achieve their ultimate goal by getting past Greenbrier in the Class AAAAAA state championship. The Greyhounds, four years removed from their last title, will host the Wolf Pack for a doubleheader today and a potential third game Monday.
Staff photo by Laura Moon
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MARIETTA — Ask any of the members of Pope’s baseball team for one word that describes this year’s postseason push, it’s likely that there would be a different answer each time.

Senior pitcher and third baseman Nathaniel Lowe chose “machine, because we can hit anybody you throw out on the mound.”

Senior catcher Wes Smith went with “loose, because we don’t get uptight.”

“We’ve done a good job in tight situations and we don’t get down no matter what happens,” he added. “We always think we’re capable of winning ball games.”

Coach Jeff Rowland, who is in his 19th season at Pope, hasn’t shied away from the one word he’s used throughout the playoffs to describe his team.

“These guys are resilient,” he said. “I’m sticking by that. They fight and scrap and play to the end. They take that mentality and attitude to heart for every game.”

By the end of this weekend, the Greyhounds could apply another word — champion.

Pope (26-11) will host Greenbrier (24-7) in a best-of-three Class AAAAA state championship series beginning with a 3 p.m. doubleheader today and, if necessary, a decisive final game Monday at 3 p.m.

“Getting here is a relief from past years,” said Lowe, whose two previous postseason trips ended in the quarterfinals. “We’ve been a championship-level team for a couple of years now. Losing in the elite eight the past two years and finally getting to the state championship game is something we knew we could do. We knew we could get here.”

Several players have helped get the Greyhounds to this point, including Smith, Lowe, Stephen Skruck and Patrick Wiseman, among others.

“Lowe, Skruck and Wiseman are our big three, but up and down our lineup, we have guys that contribute every night,” Rowland said.

Lowe is batting .463 with 46 RBIs, 11 home runs and 44 runs scored. He also pitches, owning a 3.67 ERA through 42 innings with 39 strikeouts.

Skruck, who has a 4.72 ERA through 46 innings with 60 strikeouts, is batting .429 with 33 RBIs and 20 runs scored, while Wiseman is 10-2 on the year with a 2.46 ERA through 59 2/3 innings with 94 strikeouts. He’s also batting .345 with 27 RBIs and 32 runs scored, while Smith is at .346 with 29 RBIs.

“We’re a good group with a lot of hard-working guys,” Smith said. “We’re a good program and we’re putting it all together this year and at the right time.”

The right time is a bit of an understatement. Pope won its only state championship in 2009, reached the quarterfinals in 2011 and are back in the finals in 2013.

“The odd-numbered years have been good to us the past couple of seasons,” Rowland said. “We’re fortunate to be where we are. I have to tip my hat to the kids because we’ve been preaching to them all year that they’re never out of a game, and they believe it.”

Pope’s 2009 championship was also won at home, making the Greyhounds’ series against Greenbrier even more familiar. Four years ago, Pope swept its first-round series, only to need three games in the second round, quarterfinals and semifinals before reaching the championship.

This year’s team has taken a similar path to the finals with a first-round sweep of Arabia Mountain, followed by three-game series against Winder-Barrow, Evans and Starr’s Mill.

“The 2009 team and this team are each different,” Rowland said. “They each have their own identity, but they’ve both taken the same route to the finals. This is one of the best offensive teams we’ve ever had. The ’09 team had a good offense too, but it also had three SEC pitchers. The ’09 team was the glue that really got us going with sustained postseason success.”

Greenbrier isn’t a stranger to postseason success either. The Wolf Pack already own five Class AAAA titles and reached the championship series last year, losing to Loganville in three games.

“Greenbrier is battle-tested,” Rowland said. “They’ve been here before. They’re a well-coached team that played in the championship (series) last year, and they’ll be ready to play (today).”

Besides his team’s resilience, Rowland has also stressed the benefits his team has had playing at home throughout this year’s postseason.

“The community is excited,” he said. “The student body is excited. It’s been a good athletic year for our school across the board. It’s a neat feeling. The kids have put themselves in a great situation. Now, it’s time to go out and enjoy it.”
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