Rebels playing their best baseball heading into second round matchup

Published 3:06 pm Wednesday, April 24, 2024

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Baseball season at any level can be a tougher grind than any sport. The season is long, has peaks and valleys and most coaches just want to see their teams get hot at the right time of the year. 

Chambers Academy seems to be hitting its peak at the exact right time. The Rebels dominated Hooper Academy in the first round, winning each game by eight or more runs, and the team has won five straight heading into a second-round matchup against Southern Academy. 

“Me and the coaches were talking, and we think we’re playing our best ball right now,” Chambers Academy coach Dillon NeSmith said. “The guys are kind of believing in each other, and that’s important. We’ve had guys that we weren’t expecting to step up this year step up in a big way.” 

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Southern Academy is somewhat of an unfamiliar opponent for the Rebels, but the two teams did face off earlier this season. Chambers Academy came away with a 9-6 win in the matchup on March 23, but the Cougars did not have their ace on the mound. 

Sophomore Brayden Hennigan leads Southern Academy on the mound. Hennigan has posted a 1.78 ERA in 14 appearances this season. 

“We have not played them very much since I’ve been here,” NeSmith said. “I do know that they’re young. They have several young kids, they’re good players, but they are young. We’re going to try to take advantage of that.” 

The biggest surprise for Chambers Academy this season has been the names leading the way. Jon Caulfield has been the biggest surprise, coming from a player who was expected to play a small role out of the bullpen and instead became a starting pitcher and everyday player for the Rebels. 

“He’s stepped up big time for us, not only pitching but at the plate as well,” NeSmith said. “He’s been a big factor and a huge contributor throughout the season. It’s been a joy to watch him mature and grow up and gain a little bit more confidence in himself.” 

Caulfield will take the mound in game one of the doubleheader on Thursday with Kyle Hand taking the ball in game two. NeSmith has confidence in Caulfield’s ability to get the Rebels a win in game one, but he wants Hand to have the ball in game two if it ends up being a win-or-go-home matchup. 

Chambers Academy has several senior leaders, but the younger players have stepped up this season. Sophomore Payton Yerta hit a grand slam in the first round and has been one of the better bats this season. 

Yerta’s brother Braxton led the way at shortstop last season, and Payton has immediately filled that role. Payton has led the sophomore class that has made up most of the team’s roster this season. 

“They’ve made some sophomore mistakes at the beginning of the season, but they work hard,” NeSmith said. “This group works hard, and I never have a problem with them coming in on weekends to get extra work in.”
The starting rotation has fluctuated throughout the season, with Hand, Caulfield, Sheppard and several others all making starts. The Rebels have seen the bullpen come together this season with guys like Cameron Gooden and Landon Hand giving quality innings. 

“It makes it extremely easy. Something we’ve struggled with in the past is having guys who have some arm talent but sometimes can’t find the zone. I feel confident in seven, eight or nine of them to come in and hit their spots.” 

The Rebels will take the 152-mile trip to Southern Academy on Thursday. The series is a best of three with a doubleheader on Thursday and a game three on Friday if needed. NeSmith plans to have the team stay overnight in Tuscaloosa if there were to be a third game. 

Heading into the matchup, NeSmith is looking for his guys to stay team-focused. Playoff baseball can put pressure on players to be heroes, but the Rebels are emphasizing a team-first mentality heading into the second round. 

“We’re a team. We all win or we all lose together,” NeSmith said. “In society, so many people are all about me me me. It’s been our focus all year. We have talented guys who aren’t playing as much. Our message has been, when you get the opportunity make the most of it and don’t shy away from the moment.”