By Lee Davis
Jamie Harris knows all about the tradition of Vestavia Hills baseball.
As a Rebel player in the 1990s, Harris was a part of three state championship teams under legendary coach Sammy Dunn. He also worked as an assistant for eight years before taking over as head coach after Tommy Walker’s resignation shortly after the end of the 2015 season.
As the 2016 season gets underway, Harris and his Rebels are making some traditions of their own. Vestavia rolled into mid-March with a 16-2 record, suffering losses only to Hoover and Thompson. The impressive start was enough to place the Rebels in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 National Baseball Rankings, with Vestavia coming in at the 22nd spot.
“It’s great for our kids to get recognized,” Harris said. “But it’s not one of the things we want to accomplish. We want to keep our heads down and concentrate on being our best.”
Harris believes that the Rebels’ early success hasn’t been anything magical – just a matter of playing solid baseball.
“I don’t know if it’s any one thing,” he said. “We’re pitching well and getting good defense. We’re also hitting the ball to the right places. I can’t put my finger on it completely – we’re playing with a lot of focus and effort.”
Harris said the transition from assistant to head coach was an easy one to make. “The guys on this team deserve the credit,” he said. “They bought into everything we have asked them to do.”
Dunn won nine state titles during his ultra-successful 26-year run as Vestavia’s coach and his legacy still influences the program. Harris sounds a lot like Dunn – who died after a bout with cancer in 2004 – when describing his team’s goals.
“A state championship is always one of our goals,” he said, “but shouldn’t ever be the main goal of high school athletics. We want to train young men to (be) better husbands, fathers and employees by teaching them a work ethic and a sense of accountability. If we can win a state championship along the way, that’s a bonus. We talk about Coach Dunn every day and he will always be part of this program.”
Winning a state title may not be the Rebels’ main goal for the new season, but it’s certainly an attainable one. The ace of the pitching staff is senior Sonny Potter, who has already committed to the University of Alabama. At mid-month Potter had posted a 4-0 record with 35 strikeouts and only six walks. He allowed only three earned runs.
“Ninety percent of what we work on in practice is pitching and defense,” Potter said. “That’s where our emphasis is. We can be as good as we want to be.”
Other key members of the pitching staff are seniors Nate Dennis with a 3-0 record and Brett Jones, Davis Gurosky and Zack Ingram, each with a 2-0 worksheet. Caden Lemons, Caleb Roberson and Jack Briddle all sport 1-0 marks.
Another Rebel pitcher is probably the most inspirational player on the team – or maybe anywhere. Junior Josh Stevens contributes despite having been born without a left arm.
To hear Stevens talk, it’s really no big deal.
“I’ve played since I was six,” he said. “Other people play, so I never saw why I couldn’t. Nothing has stopped me yet.”
Stevens said Harris brought a new sense of direction to the team.
“Our practices have been run a lot tighter since Coach Harris took over,” he said. “He’s really taught us the importance of working hard to get better.”
Harris has also kept the team’s feet on the ground through all the early success, according to Stevens.
“When Coach told us about the national ranking, we were very excited,” he said. “Then he told us that he was proud of us for earning the ranking, but we still had to show up and take every opponent seriously. Our coaches have done a great job of keeping our heads straight.”
Stevens had a word of advice for any youngster attempting to overcome a perceived disability to compete in athletics.
“I always tell them to keep their head down and don’t listen to people who say you can’t do something,” he said. “If anyone with a disability wants to play sports, they should work hard. If they do that, everything will take care of itself.”
Sophomore third baseman Luke Whitaker may have Vestavia’s hottest bat. Through mid-March, he was hitting a hefty .414 with 11 RBIs. Versatile infielder Christian Cusimano is hitting .369 with eight RBIs. Other Rebel regulars batting over .300 are second baseman Parker Hershey, right fielder Sam Lawson, centerfielder Braxton Arnold, infielder Walker Minor and Potter, who plays first base when not pitching. Potter leads the team with 16 RBIs and three homers.
Vestavia competes in Class 7A’s Area Five, which also features Thompson and Tuscaloosa County in addition to arch-rival Hoover. The Rebels best performance of the year may have come in a 10-2 victory over the Bucs on March 10.
“They had beaten us 5-4 for our first loss of the year at the end of February,” Potter recalled. “So we were pretty pumped up to play them the second time. Of course, when you get to this level there are no easy ones.”
And while few present-day Rebels had even reached elementary school when Dunn coached his final game, each player understands the significance of the school’s baseball heritage.
“What Coach Dunn accomplished will always be remembered,” Potter said. “We all realize that this school and this field (named for Dunn) is a special place for baseball. The expectation of being nationally ranked and contending for a state championship may be considered to be a lot of pressure. But here, pressure is a privilege.”
Vestavia has strong pitching and defense, consistent if not overpowering hitting, and a player whose very presence on the team inspires others. That sounds like a winning combination for another championship run.