On that fateful day, May 18, 2010, the Purple Hurricanes found themselves in great position to possibly win a third consecutive state championship after beating the Blue Devils the previous two years — in the 2008 quarterfinals and 2009 finals.
Columbus, however, swept that Elite Eight matchup and has won the last two Class AAA state titles and seeks a third this year as it welcomes Cartersville for another heavyweight bout.
Asked if he was looking forward to renewing the rivalry with the Blue Devils, Canes head coach Stuart Chester said, “That’s a baited question.”
“I enjoy playing Columbus, just the fact that I feel you got two good programs and, of course, if you’re gonna go out and compete and feel good about yourself and about your program, being successful against Columbus will definitely do that,” Chester elaborated. “You always run the risk of getting embarrassed as well. But, our program, we want to play the best. Not that we dodge anybody or anything like that, [but] I would prefer it be in the championship series because with two good programs one of ’em — regardless [if it’s] us or them — is gonna go home. But, I look forward to these types of series because … the fans love it. It [doesn’t] do a lot for my health, but as far as our players and our community and our program, it’s a plus for us.”
Cartersville, the No. 8 team in the coaches’ poll, goes into the next round of the playoffs having swept Oconee County (11-2, 10-0) and Veterans (15-0, 3-1) in the first two rounds. Columbus, the top-ranked Class AAA team in the state, comes in with four wins in four games as well — 10-0, 14-0 triumphs over Arabia Mountain and 4-0, 7-2 victories against Harlem last Wednesday, which saw a masterful 18-strikeout, one-hitter from pitcher Kyle Carter in Game 1.
The Blue Devils certainly haven’t lost much in the way of talent since their last meeting against the Canes in 2010.
“They probably got a lot of the players left from then. They were young that year. I know they got Carter. He was here in ’09,” Chester said of Columbus’ southpaw pitcher and home-run hitting outfielder. “They graduated maybe one or two from last year’s team, so they’re definitely the team to beat and they’re at the top of the food chain. Expectations are that we play for it and we win it, and people around here expect that and it’s hard to live up to [those] expectations with Columbus sitting over there across from you. … They’re on paper the best team, maybe in any classification in the state.”
Columbus coach Bobby Howard suggested that whether his team or Cartersville is favored heading into their matchup is subjective.
“It depends on who you’re talking to. We don’t think we are. I just have a lot of respect for Stuart and his program,” Howard said. “You can throw the records out the window. … It doesn’t matter if someone’s won 30 in a row, it’s gonna be a dogfight. It’s such a rivalry.
“We know Cartersville is always gonna be in the way of a championship every year from our perspective. We don’t want to play ’em this early, but we know we gotta [play ’em at some point].”
Though Cartersville didn’t get the sort of test from the Warhawks that may have been beneficial going into a colossal collision with Columbus in Round 3, Chester feels his team should have no problem in a showdown of this magnitude.
“There’s pluses and minuses to everything,” he said of the Canes’ quick work of Veterans. “Of course, I think we’re battle tested playing the Ringgolds and Allatoonas and Heritage and of course Parkview, Marist, Lassiter, those guys. You know, Parkview and Marist [are] still in the [Class AAAAA and AAAA] playoffs. I think we’re battle tested.”
“One thing that’s good coming out of Veterans is our pitch count on our pitchers is down, so they’re healthy and rested and should be pretty much ready to go, as opposed to going seven innings,” Chester continued. “I think Kendall Hawkins threw about 45 or 46 pitches. Trey [Graves] went, of course, about 101, which is about average, and Tyler Will threw maybe 15, so … there’s a plus to not being tested.”
There is no question about whether Cartersville will be challenged by the Blue Devils — it will be — so Hawkins, Graves and Will have to match Carter, a Georgia commit, and the rest of the Blue Devils’ pitching staff. Chester thinks they are in a great spot to do just that.
“They’re healthy, they’re in shape. They can go 115, 120 pitches. They’re ready,” Chester noted. “The thing that’s really helped throughout the season, they’ve progressively gotten better with throwing strikes and locating not just fastballs but all pitches. … If you don’t go in there in Columbus and have command of all your pitches and rely on a fastball, it’ll be two five-inning games and we’ll come home.”
Columbus (27-3) jumped on the Canes (24-5) two years ago, winning Game 1 by a score of 6-0 before holding off a late Cartersville rally to win 8-5 in Game 2 and advance to the semifinals.
Much like the mystique of the Canes’ Richard Bell Field, the Blue Devils’ Randy Jordan Field has an aura about it.
“It’s hard to describe and it’s hard to explain,” Chester said. “And they [Blue Devils] maybe can speak the same for coming here, I don’t know, but it’s something that you don’t prepare for, but experience does help. And we don’t have a lot of experience.
“You’re gonna go in and take [the] infield [to warm up], they’ll cut the music off. It’ll be dead,” he continued about playing in Columbus. “They have a great supportive student body. They don’t make errors. They throw strikes — hard, fast strikes. They hit the ball far. They hit the ball when they need to — timely hitting. I mean, they do everything right.”
Many of Cartersville’s players have never played on the Blue Devils’ field — save for junior shortstop Connor Justus, a three-year starter — but their coach likened the situation to the Canes’ state championship season four years ago.
“Of course, you can say the same thing in ’08. In ’08, we did the same thing and came out on top,” Chester added. “With our fan support and our community, we’ll go down and be represented very well, and our kids, they don’t fear anybody. They respect [teams], which I think’s good, but we’ll go in and stand toe to toe and see who’s left standing.”
One way or the other, this week’s matchup will bring an end to a seven-year span where two schools with a combined 16 state titles — five for Cartersville — routinely met in the state playoffs.
Each school has won five state championship since 2000 — three for Cartersville in Class AA from 2001-03 — but the two no longer have to do so at the expense of the other. Columbus goes up to Class AAAA beginning next year, while the Canes are set to remain in Class AAA.
Of course, each classification cycle is just two years, meaning Columbus could drop back down to Class AAA by fall of 2014, something Howard referenced.
For now, however, today marks the final time the two will meet in the playoffs for the foreseeable future. The Blue Devils defeated Cartersville in 2005 and 2006, with the former win leading to a state championship, and the Canes won the next two times they met before Columbus moved ahead 3-2 in playoff matchups.
This year’s doubleheader begins at 2 p.m., with a third game scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, if necessary.