Numbers in baseball can always be misleading. Hardaway head coach Chris Gilstrap’s team proved that point this past season.
The Hawks ended the regular season with an 11-13 record, then promptly won six of their next 10 games. Hardaway’s trek through an up-and-down season and its advancement to the quarterfinals of the Class 4A state playoffs helped Gilstrap earn All-Bi-City Coach of the Year honors.
The start of the season was a struggle for Hardaway, which began the campaign with a 1-5 record. After big region victories against Columbus and Northside, the Hawks righted the ship for nearly two weeks before suffering seven losses in their next eight games.
Gilstrap said the victories over Columbus and Northside showed the team its potential but left plenty of work to be done.
“I think we knew from the start we were a talented team and we were capable of good things,” said Gilstrap, who is Coach of the Year for the second time in six seasons at his alma mater. “It was just a matter of putting it all together. It just started happening for us at the end.”
The Hawks proved with their dismal start and the so-so middle of the season that it wasn’t about how they started, but how they finished.
After keeping up with Columbus and Northside as part of a four-way battle for the top of the subregion, Hardaway put on a clinic in the final two weeks. Hardaway chalked up five victories in its final six games, including a 3-0 win over Northside that was pivotal in the Hawks taking the second spot in the subregion.
Gilstrap credited the dramatic uptick in play largely to the newfound offense, which scored 52 runs in those six contests.
“Our problem was we weren’t scoring runs and weren’t hitting,” Gilstrap said. “When that started coming along, that’s when we became a dangerous team. The arms were there, and they were healthy all year. When you throw the defense in there and the hitting and scoring runs, that’s what really helped out.”
Hardaway’s status as a dangerous team continued into the postseason. After dismantling Westover in the region play-in series, the Hawks hit the road to face Burke County in the first round of the state playoffs. The Hawks prevailed in three games before facing Troup County, which also lost to Hardaway in three games.
The Hawks endured playoff-like pressure throughout region play, which made the challenges of road playoff series a little less daunting.
“We’ve always said if you can make it our of the region, you’ve prepared yourself to compete in the playoffs,” Gilstrap said. “Whoever makes it out usually has a pretty good shot. Those were playoff games in our region. They all meant so much and were very competitive games. It was nothing we weren’t used to.”
The Hawks finally met their match in the quarterfinals, losing to Heritage-Catoosa in two games. Still, Hardaway was the last team standing in Muscogee County, which was an accomplishment that wasn’t taken lightly.
For Gilstrap, the team’s turnaround and push through the playoffs was something to be enjoyed by all involved.
“It means a lot for our guys,” Gilstrap said. “I knew they were better than what the record showed. We had a lot of seniors this year, and they’d been on some very good teams. It was their turn, and we talked about that a lot. It finally started clicking for them.
“It’s good to see them go out like they did.”
Jordan D. Hill: 770-894-9818, @lesports