Lions and Tigers, oh my
Every baseball season is special in Ascension Parish.
There's always an abundance of special players, there is usually a team or two that have special years that culminate in memorable playoff runs and the fans' passion for the sport rivals that of any parish in the state.
Those are things that have come to be expected. But then, there are other things that come as pleasant surprises that make the season just the more enjoyable.
This year, those surprises happen to be the emergence of programs that aren't the norm when talking about Ascension heavyweights. But in 2017, their strong play has been able to reverberate the same statement: don't sleep on us.
When it comes to Class 1A baseball in the parish, Ascension Catholic has always been the headliner. They've earned that recognition.
The Bulldogs have a rich tradition, and that has only continued throughout these past few years as they've made it to the state quarterfinals for three straight seasons.
But slowly but surely, tiny Ascension Christian has built itself up into a formidable challenger.
It was just in 2014 that the Lions were a lowly 8-14. Ever since then, they've been rebuilding.
Coach Paul Burgard helped put together the foundation for the program as he tossed many eighth-graders and freshmen into the fire as starters.
It has paid off. Those young players took their lumps early and only got better for it.
In 2015, they improved to 12-9. Last season, they finished 17-7 and hosted a playoff game for the first time in school history.
With a solid foundation already intact, Conrad Gayle took over as head coach during the offseason with the intent of taking the program to the next level. So far, so good.
The Lions are off to a promising start.
Nothing speaks more of their growth than a shutout victory over defending District 6-1A champion Ascension Catholic. It was their first win over the Bulldogs in two years.
Then, they went on to beat St. John. This was the baseball program's first ever victory over the Eagles.
And the future looks bright for the Lions.
Next year, they will lose one of their best players in senior Peyton Bahlinger, but the majority of their starters will be back. This includes Nic Montalbano--a sophomore that has emerged this season as their ace on the mound.
It has also been fun to watch the evolution of the Donaldsonville baseball program.
It's no big secret, Donaldsonville is a football and basketball school. When you think of the red and black-clad Tigers, you never think of baseball, but they're changing that in 2017.
Under first-year head coach Garrett Maum, the program has gotten a shot in the arm.
No longer are there barely enough players to field a team. No longer is there low turnout at practice. No longer do the coaches have to worry about their players caring.
The kids have totally bought in, and they want to learn. They want to compete, and most importantly, they want to win.
There are many kids on Coach Maum's roster that have little to no experience in baseball, but that hasn't prevented them from playing hard and being dedicated to the sport.
Prior to this season, Donaldsonville had only won a total of nine games in the previous six seasons. The most wins in a single year during that stretch was three.
So far in 2017, the Tigers have already won eight games. They're sitting pretty at 8-1 overall.
It's amazing what tasting a little success and gaining confidence will do for kids.
They no longer go into games expecting to get blown away in an ugly mercy-rule finish. They go into games expecting to win and win big.
And like Ascension Christian, they have the potential to keep building and getting better in the future. They have a young and hungry team.
Some of their best players--like Tre'von Mitchell, Tim Campbell and Malik Fowler will all be at Maum's disposal for the next two to three years.
St. Amant, Dutchtown, East Ascension and Ascension Catholic, they'll all certainly have their opportunities to do special things come playoff time.
But they're not the only teams in Ascension that know how to play some baseball. Don't forget about the Lions and Tigers.