WAYNESBORO – A long and winding road through east Georgia took the John Milledge Academy Trojans to back-to-back baseball state championships for the first time in school history.
The Trojans completed the series sweep of Pinewood Christian Academy Monday, winning the clincher 12-1 following a rollercoaster of a weekend.
Rainy weather wreaked havoc with the best-of-three series schedule as four different sites were tabbed to host the Georgia Independent Athletic Association (GIAA) Class AAA championship originally slated for last Thursday through Saturday. SRP Park in North Augusta was the original venue, and did play host to the Trojans’ 6-0 win in Game 1 Saturday. The league only had access to SRP Park through Saturday though, so Augusta Christian was announced as the Game 2 location for Monday. Change came Sunday when Augusta Christian was passed over due to expected wet conditions at the school. The Georgia School for Innovation and the Classics (GSIC) in Hephzibah was the next landing spot. That was a mistake. John Milledge and championship challenger Pinewood arrived there to find the field unplayable, and so at 1:15 p.m. Monday the series moved to Edmund Burke Academy in nearby Waynesboro. The original 2 p.m. start time was pushed back 45 minutes to allow everyone to travel the 20 or so miles. EBA coaches and school officials scrambled to get the field ready, and did so in amazing fashion. Their field served as a sanctuary for the JMA baseball congregation as Edmund Burke Academy now holds a special place in Trojan baseball history.
“We stayed the course,” Trojans head coach Chad Starley said when talking about his team’s last few days. “We talk about how we can’t control distractions and we can’t focus on distractions. We’ve just got to focus on the gameplan at hand, and that’s what they did today.”
A JMA alum as well as the team’s head coach, Starley has been a part of three out of the program’s four state championships, one as a player in 1993 and the last two as head coach. He knows what it takes to reach the pinnacle, and spoke about it on the field after Monday’s clincher.
“Hard work, connection, being prepared, buying into the process, buying into what we want to do as a team, trusting the scouting report, and just loving each other,” Starley said. “They played for each other. When you have a group of seven seniors, that’s what has to happen. They have to play for each other.”
The Trojans’ camaraderie, ability to pick one another up, and preparedness were all evident Monday. After an uneventful first couple of innings, the Trojans, batting as the visitors in Game 2, got on the board first. Junior Cooper Wilburn was hit by a pitch and senior Cayden Avant placed a perfect bunt down the third-base line that went for a single to open the door for left-fielder Banks Eady. He sent a line drive back up the middle to drive both guys in and put his team up 2-0. Pinewood got one of those back in the bottom half of the frame, but that’s as close as the Patriots would get.
Trouble came immediately for Pinewood starting pitcher Nicholas Nobles to lead off the fourth. He surrendered back-to-back singles to Brady Rollins and Jackson Thomas, setting the table for junior second baseman Blake Bellflower. He put a big swing on the ball and sent it over the right-centerfield fence for a dam-breaking three-run shot.
“He was throwing us fastballs all game, so I was sitting fastball,” said Bellflower. “I saw it coming over the plate, so I tried to stay up the middle and took it for a ride.”
It was his fifth longball of the season and second of the state playoffs. The fun wasn’t over. Eady came to the plate later in the top of the fourth with two teammates on again. This time he didn’t just bring them around, but himself as well. His batted ball easily cleared the left-field fence and the mountain of dirt beyond it for John Milledge’s second three-run homer of the inning that put the team up 9-1. Both Banks and his twin brother Briggs wrapped up incredible athletic careers as JMA Trojans Monday, finishing up with seven state championships across football (four), basketball (one), and baseball (two).
“It’s amazing,” Banks said. “I couldn’t ask for anything better than to end it like this.”
Eady finished 3-for-4 on the afternoon with a team-high 5 RBIs. The blood was already in the water, and the Trojans continued feasting. Thomas hit the team’s last home run of the day, a two-run shot out to left-center to complement his absolute bomb that came in Game 1 Saturday. Someone in the high-rise apartments beyond the left-field fence at SRP Park got a wake-up call that day. They even came out on their balcony to check out some of the ballgame. Thomas’ Game 1 dinger was against Pinewood ace and TCU signee Jax Lewis, who he out-dueled as the starter in the series opener. Thomas threw a two-hit shutout with six strikeouts in that 6-0 victory. He goes out on top with two home runs in the championship series.
“I wouldn’t want to do it with anybody else,” Thomas said of his teammates. “We’ve created such a bond because we’ve been playing together for so long, some of us for over 10 years.”
Up 11-1 in the top of the fifth, the Trojans added one more run to bring the game to its final tally.
One of the most telling stats from the series had to do with pitching usage. Pinewood threw five different guys across the two games, four on Monday. Starley needed only two. The Game 2 starter Wilburn sat the Pinewood batters down in order to finish off the ballgame and series as the game was called after five innings due to the mercy rule. Like Thomas in Game 1, Wilburn allowed Pinewood only two hits and struck out seven batters. He also left some of his blood on Edmund Burke’s field. His face got busted up while covering homeplate after a wild pitch and his hand was bloodied by a cleat in the postgame celebration dogpile, but back-to-back state championships are a heck of a pain reliever. Wilburn led a dominant pitching effort that paired nicely with the Trojan bats that bashed 11 hits.
The JMA head coach could not ask for anything more from his team when the stakes were highest.
“It was a fantastic performance,” Starley said. “We knew we had our guy going on the mound. We knew he was going to throw strikes and compete every pitch. We knew at some point that our bats were going to wake up. At one point I was standing over there and just telling myself that we were hitting the ball like we knew what was coming. That’s how well we hit the ball today.”
It’s already difficult to repeat as state champions, even more so when the expectations surrounding a team are so high, but the Trojans navigated those waters on their way to a 21-7 final record.
“I was worried all year because it’s hard when you’ve got a bullseye,” Starley added. “It’s hard when you’re on top. I wasn’t stressed last year because we were kind of under the radar, but these seniors carried this team this year at practice, at dinners, and in the locker room. Anything we did, they carried us and they were an absolute joy to be able to coach these last two years.”