Carson Villalta could feel his poker face slipping.
Underwhelmed by his performance in the Class 4A first round playoff series against Deshler, Brooks’ junior shortstop/pitcher homered to right center in game two of a second round sweep at Cherokee County.
A little bit later in that same game, he homered again.
“It’s hard not to smile when you’re running around the bases,” Villalta said recently. “You don’t want the other team to see your excitement, but I was pumped. Especially when you round third and you see your coach smiling at you and telling you good job, it’s a great feeling.”
There were a lot of great feelings in 2019 for Villalta (pronounced Vee-OWL-ta) and the rest of the Lions - particularly in the postseason as Brooks won all five playoff rounds to capture its first state baseball title in school history.
A fine pitcher as well, Villalta batted .382 for a solid Brooks offense and is the TimesDaily’s Class 4A-7A Hitter of the Year.
Villalta and the other TimesDaily players of the year will be honored at the annual Athlete of the Year banquet June 11 at the Florence-Lauderdale Coliseum where overall male and female athletes of the year and top athletic program will be named.
Villalta still had those home run baseballs in his car a week after the state championship, when they had shifted from lucky charms to happy memories.
Brooks beat Deshler, Cherokee County, Haleyville, Hokes Bluff and Sipsey Valley to win the state championship, sweeping every opponent but Hokes Bluff.
“After that Haleyville series, we came to the huddle, both teams, and Haleyville’s coach (Todd McNutt) said he told Coach Fowler going into that whoever wins this series he thinks will win it all,” Villalta said. “I didn’t want to think that he jinxed us or nothing, or say anything, but it made me feel good. Especially going into the Hokes Bluff (series), it gave us all confidence I think.”
Villalta said at the end of practices during the playoffs, head coach Jacob Fowler or assistant coach Luke Mansell would gather the team together and remind them the opponent was a good team.
Then there would be a pause, and Mansell or Fowler would say “But y’all are a great team.”
“That gave me chills every time,” Villalta said.
Villalta said he got stronger as a sophomore but tried too hard to channel it into extra-base hits in 2018 and wasn’t as productive as he might have been. After the season, coaches reminded Villalta of the importance of trying to hit the ball up the middle or to the opposite field and focus more on hitting – period – than hitting for power.
At this year’s exit interview, the coaches greeted him with smiles – Villalta and the rest of the Lions having accomplished their ultimate goal – but the conversation this time also concerned leadership.
“I was more like a co-leader this year. We had a bunch of guys who were all up there and we all listened to each other. We had a great team chemistry. It was one of the best teams I’ve ever been a part of,” Villalta said.
“But they said I need to be a leader next year because we are going to have some younger guys look to step up in that role.”
Villalta insisted the Lions won’t be content to just try and repeat what they did but want to be even better next year.
“Hopefully we can go back,” he said.
Coach of the Year: Jacob Fowler, Brooks
At the close of Game 1 in Brooks’ third round playoff series at Haleyville, Thorne Tapp made his longest and most memorable throw of the night.
Tapp had pitched most of the game but was in right field for the end of it and made a pinpoint toss to catcher Hayden Walton, who tagged out a baserunner at the plate to seal a win for Brooks.
“That was one of those moments as a coach you start to kind of feel it,” Brooks coach Jacob Fowler said.
Brooks finished the sweep with another win later that night and won its next two series to become the school’s first state baseball champion, and Fowler is the TimesDaily’s Class 4A-7A baseball coach of the year.
“It was huge for our team, for our school and for our community,” said Fowler, whose team is still in the soaking-in phase of its title.
Eventually, though, Fowler will have to make sure the Lions aren’t resting on the past but pursuing new success as eagerly as they did this year.
“I think they’ve got a taste of how good that feels,” he said. “They believe in what we’re doing out here.”
Fowler is quick to credit assistants Luke Mansell, Stephen Darwin and Logan Michael for the work they did making sure Brooks players were positioned and prepared well to make plays and be their best.
Four times a runner-up, Brooks baseball now has the state title to show for that work.