By Blake Ells
Briarwood Christian began the 2019 baseball season by losing its first 11 games.
As of March 14, nearly a full month into the season, it was 1-14. Then, the Lions roared back, going 22-7 through region play and into the playoffs to finish as the AHSAA 5A state runners-up. They fell to Springville in the championship game.
It’s for that remarkable turnaround that head coach Steve Renfroe is the 2019 Over the Mountain Journal Coach of the Year, as voted on by coaches in the Over the Mountain area.
“Everybody knows how we started,” Renfroe said. “But during that time, we felt really great about the kids. We told them at that time that we thought they could be the best team in 5A. When we were 0-11, I told them that they were one of my favorite teams ever, and they hadn’t won a game.”
They faced injuries and illness in the first part of the season. Wes Helms had mono and Blake McKenna a wrist injury, and they missed some time. Pitcher Carson McKinney experienced a lot of muscle pain that kept him away from the field a bit. Their return was vital to the Lion’s turnaround; their time away also allowed some younger players an opportunity to get valuable experience.
Renfroe feels his team was first at full strength when they reached region play.
But it wasn’t just being shorthanded that made the early games difficult. The Lions were facing a lot of 7A competition: Vestavia Hills, Pelham, Spain Park, Hewitt-Trussville. That was by design, and the added handicap ensured that Renfroe’s squad was prepared when it mattered most.
“We do that every year,” Renfroe said. “That’s the ninth year in a row that we’ve done it. We play those guys every year, and it’s to help us get better; to play really good people and well-coached teams. They’ll expose you in a hurry if you’re not playing well. It toughens our kids up. They see guys that are going to Ole Miss, Alabama, LSU – great players. When we get to moving on, we’re not going to see anybody better than those guys. I think it builds a lot of confidence in our kids.”
Renfroe shies away from taking credit for the turnaround, insisting that his team was wholly responsible.
“We showed up every day and did the same thing we always do,” he said. “We taught. We worked. It’s really a testament to those kids and their upbringing. They stayed the course.
“Our central theme was James 1 – count it joy when you face trials of many kinds. Our focus was, ‘Guys, this is like life. You get up off the mat and you keep going. This doesn’t define you, but how you respond to it will.’ If you’re 11-0 or 20-0, sometimes it’s easier to give a lot of praise. We’re grateful to the Lord for that. But we were really grateful to the Lord for the losses. That was the message. ‘We’re going to embrace this and be grateful for the trials; learn from them.’ That was our message. The kids were great.”
The Sum Was Greater …
This was Renfroe’s 10th team at Briarwood Christian. He had a team reach the semifinals before, but this was a new high.
“They cared about each other,” he said. “They cared about Briarwood. The sum was much greater than the individual parts.”
For the first time under his leadership, Renfroe named team captains this season: Guin Renfroe, Noah Whatley, Sam Hamner and Bryce Perrien. He said he felt called by God to award those titles. He spoke with Dr. Shawn Brower, who had experience with naming captains, and they met with the players who would earn the distinction. Brower taught them what a captain was, what a captain does and what a captain doesn’t do.
Renfroe will lose those guys to graduation this year; guys he insists were more integral to his team’s 2019 success than he was.
“I never in all of my career had captains,” he said. “These kids were the right guys at the right time. They took a really young team and stayed the course and they were tremendous leaders. They had as much to do with that whole transformation as anybody. Every day they showed up, they said, ‘Alright. Let’s get better.’”
He’s hopeful about the young team he will return next season because of the legacy that those captains are leaving behind.