By Lee Davis
When a baseball team starts its season with a 23-3 record, most coaches like to talk about pitching, hitting and defense. That’s understandable, because those fundamentals are keys to success in the sport at any level.
But they aren’t the first thing Mountain Brook coach Lee Gann mentions when discussing his Spartans, who are 23-3 and hold a No. 1 ranking in the latest Class 7A polls.
“We have guys that look after each other every day,” said Gann, fresh off a victory in the Spartans Sports Corporation Spring Break Tournament last week. “This is one of the most unselfish teams I’ve ever been around. The character of each individual is what makes this team special.”
Mountain Brook’s impressive beginning is showing itself in more tangible ways as well.
“We’re playing better defense and producing runs when we have the opportunities,” Gann said. “Our base running has also been a bright spot.”
A mainstay for the Spartans has been a strong senior class.
“When a team has a lot of experienced seniors, it’s easier to get a grasp on what we can do,” Gann said. “With a team that is less seasoned, it’s harder to tell. The best thing about these seniors is that many of them are like having coaches on the field.”
One of the most important seniors is catcher Jack McPherson, a three-year starter who has already signed with Auburn University.
“Jack does a great job of handling our pitchers,” Gann said. “It’s rare to find a high school catcher who can do as many things as well as he does.”
McPherson is a force with his bat as well. He’s hitting a robust .453 with 32 RBIs and five home runs.
Other seniors down the middle are second baseman Andrew Autrey and centerfielder Drew Odum.
“Both of them are reliable about making the routine plays and sometimes make the spectacular plays,” Gann said. “They also have a good knack for getting on base.”
Autrey has an on-base percentage of .444, while Odom bats .315 with 20 RBIs.
Also providing offensive punch in the Mountain Brook batting order are first baseman J.D. Kubiszyn, a senior, and outfielder Luke Hartman, a junior.
“They are the heart of our lineup and are great contact hitters,” Gann said. “Kubiszyn is hitting at a .464 pace with 32 RBIs. Hartman is batting .433 with 22 RBIs.”
Perhaps the Spartans’ greatest asset is a pitching staff that is talented and deep. Seniors Hunter Holcomb and Alan Hale along with junior Burt Bellande – all left-handers – often make up the starting rotation.
Holcomb is 5-1 with an ERA of 1.833 and 33 strikeouts. Hale has a 4-1 record with a microscopic ERA of .733 and has fanned 22 batters. Bellande is 4-1 with an ERA of 1.833.
“They are all similar and different at the same time,” Gann said. “There are plenty of things they all do well, but they are a little different in how they focus. Each of them is doing a great job.”
The starting trio aren’t the only quality arms on the team. Joe Donald – a three-sport athlete – is outstanding coming out of the bullpen. Bailey Shelfer, Parks Shoulders, John Eagan, Jeb Brown John Sisson and Kubiszyn can also do quality work on the mound. Mountain Brook’s team ERA is a strong 1.606. Shoulders can also hit when called upon, chalking up an average of .323 when playing in the infield.
“As Billy Martin once said, ‘You can’t have too many pitchers,’” Gann said, quoting the late New York Yankees manager. “We feel very good about our depth on the mound. We can put any of these guys on the mound, and they can throw strikes.”
Perhaps Mountain Brook’s most impressive performance of the season came in an 11-1 rout of Ragland in the finals of the Spring Break Tournament. Kubiszyn had three hits and four RBIs, while Holcomb had three hits and two RBIs. McPhearson added two hits and three RBIs. Odum had two triples as Hartman and Autrey contributed two hits.
Hale earned the victory on the mound, striking out five as the game ended in the sixth inning because of the 10-run mercy rule.
While the Spartans may seem invincible now, Gann and his players understand it’s far too early to make playoff plans. Mountain Brook competes in Class 7A’s rugged Area 7, which includes Spain Park, Vestavia Hills and Hewitt-Trussville. Mountain Brook has already taken two wins over the Jaguars, but difficult tests with the Rebels and Huskies come in early April.
“There’s no question that we are probably in one of the toughest areas in Alabama,” Gann said. “We have yet to play our best baseball of the season.”
And while a gaudy win-loss record and a high ranking in the state polls may be hot conversation topics for fans and members of the media, Gann said he thinks his team has the maturity to understand what’s important.
“We tell our players all the time that the only rankings that matter are the ones at the end of the season,” he said. “It’s true that some teams may be gunning for us because of our ranking, but we can’t worry about them. All we can do is worry about Mountain Brook and do everything we can to be a better baseball team.”
So for now, nobody on Bethune Drive is talking about the post-season.
“We are only thinking about the next game,” Gann said. “Actually, all we’re thinking about is the next pitch.”
Gann’s day-at-a-time approach might be good enough to give Mountain Brook the season of a lifetime.