Florence High senior William Conrad acknowledges he used to be pretty nervous entering a game from the bullpen.
But after walking two batters in the final inning of a loss to Homewood, Conrad decided he needed to approach the game like the senior he is and lead his promising team to the kind of season it wants.
Now before he heads into the game, he puts in a piece of Extra spearmint gum, says a prayer, and “I just kind of get in a zone,” he said.
Life in Class 7A, Area 8 is not easy, and teams like Austin, Bob Jones and James Clemens are all hard to beat.
But just as Conrad knows he can succeed and has developed into a reliable reliever for Florence, the Falcons (16-14, 1-1 area) have used their tough early schedule to remind themselves there’s little to nothing they haven’t already seen this year.
Head coach Steve Garrett is not a bit concerned about the Falcons’ overall record because a) he knows the quality of teams his group has played and b) it doesn’t matter anyway.
Florence simply needs to win or finish runner-up in Area 8 to advance to the playoffs. With all four teams at 1-1 in the standings, this week’s games against Bob Jones (today in Madison and Thursday in Florence) give the Falcons a chance to improve their playoff likelihood. They last qualified in 2016.
“We’ve gotten beat by some teams that shouldn’t beat us, and we’ve beaten some teams that, on paper, we shouldn’t beat, you know?” Garrett said, referring to the current season. “That’s what I’ve stressed to them. Don’t read the press clippings of your opponents. It doesn’t matter.
“If you do what you do and you play as well as you can play, you’ve got a chance to beat anybody.”
This is not empty talk. Florence lost a number of college signees to graduation over the last couple years, but several Falcons have good stats even given a schedule featuring tough non-area opponents like Homewood, Daphne, Spanish Fort, McGill-Toolen, Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa, Russellville and Muscle Shoals.
“You can’t really think about how good the team is that you’re playing,” Conrad said.
Austin Stanfield, one of Florence’s four seniors, holds down the crucial catcher position. Sophomore infielder Zeke Bishop has hit .448 with three doubles and 11 RBIs over the last 10 games.
Junior second baseman Ben Arnett hit .371 over his last 10 games with three doubles and 12 RBIs, and senior center fielder Brantley Holden is batting .515 in that period with four doubles and six RBIs.
“I’ve widened out (my stance) to try to keep my center of mass in the middle instead of trying to get out front like I did last year,” Holden said, noting “last year I was under everything, hitting pop flies or rollovers.”
In the hitting cage Monday afternoon, Garrett praised the Calhoun-bound Holden’s balanced batting stance and joked “That’s why you’re hitting like .600.”
On the mound, junior Cade Henry (South Alabama commit), sophomore Grant Taylor (LSU commit), senior Jones Webb and sophomore Cason Henry (Miami, Fla., commit) have all performed well in addition to relievers like Conrad and sophomore Raleigh Claunch.
Conrad, who said his two shutout innings against Cullman to preserve a lead might have been his best outing of the year, said the Falcons are enjoying playing and being around each other, and that has made recent weeks some of the most fun he’s had playing baseball.
So though Bob Jones (29-6) is the state’s top-ranked Class 7A team, don’t look for the Falcons to be uncomfortable.
“(It’s) kind of like a challenge to myself, like, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’ Like ‘So what they have all these D-I players? I can play with them,’” Holden said.
Garrett likes the Falcons embracing such a challenge that way.
“I don’t think you’re much of a competitor if you’re oohin’ and ahhin’ at the other team’s big players,” Garrett said. “That’s all on paper. It doesn’t mean anything until you play the game. You have to believe you can beat anybody.
“And I think they feel that way. They feel like they can beat anybody.”