Sumrall coach Larry Knight knew he had a good team this year. It was a senior-heavy team with experience, but sometimes in baseball funny things happen. The best teams don’t always win.
“Certainly going in, because of the fact that we knew the type of players we had and they had a lot of experience, we had an opportunity from the beginning,” Knight said. “Now, just because you have it on paper, it doesn’t always mean you’re going to see it.”
Knight and his coaches had to push the right buttons and the players had to make the plays. As a result, the Bobcats finished 32-8 overall and returned to the state championship under Knight’s leadership.
The wheels are always churning during games for Knight. He’s constantly thinking of how he can manipulate the game in his favor for the Bobcats. He’s made key decisions all season, but none were bigger than the pitching move he made in Game 1 of the 4A South State Series against West Lauderdale.
“Through my career, there are things I’ve learned on the good side of winning and the bad side of losing that I want to try to remember,” Knight said.
In the top of the eighth of a 2-2 game, junior John Cody Stogner was pitching well in relief. With one out, he allowed the tying run to reach first via a walk. Knight brought his sophomore left-hander Kros Sivley in to pitch against a left-handed hitter, but the biggest key for Sivley was his ability to hold runners at first base. Knight didn’t want that base runner to reach scoring position in extra innings, and he never did.
But that wasn’t what made the move genius. When Sivley came in, Stogner, who never played the field on the varsity team, was moved to left field. After Sivley got the final two outs of the inning, Stogner was allowed to come back to the mound and pitch the ninth since he never left the field. Because Sivley only threw a couple of pitches, he was available to pitch the next night for Game 2.
Sure, that type of move requires certain types of pitchers, but coming up with that idea and actually executing it comes with experience. Knight has a lot of experience.
“From a coaching standpoint, that’s probably something in my early years that I wouldn’t have thought about,” Knight said. “I’m going to go with my guy because he’s my guy, and in the beginning, I would coach that way. Then, as you go through, learn and see different scenarios, there may have been a game early in my career where we could have done it and we didn’t.
“Now you starting thinking, ‘OK, if we get in this situation, I don’t want to be at the end of a ballgame and wonder why we didn’t do something.’”
Even with all of his experience, Knight is still learning. In fact, with all of the state championships, he’s never played in title series where there was a pitch count. That rule is relatively new.
The Bobcats played three straight games in the south state championship, then turned around on one day of rest to play two state championship games. Knight had to manage his pitchers differently than he had ever before.
“That was tough on everybody, but it was very tough on the south teams,” Knight said. “Outside of Magee, we had it the second worse. I’m not making excuses, but in Game 1 (of the State Championship), we could have done the same thing with JC and Kros with the lefty matchup, but (Sivley) couldn’t pitch (Game 1) because of his pitch count.”
Knight believes a pitch count is important for high school pitchers, but he believes there has to be some help when it comes to scheduling playoff games.
“I’m a fan of pitch count, but I’m not a fan of it,” he said. “If you’re going to have a pitch count, then force teams to come back and not use guys in the state championship, that’s not good. That’s something that should be addressed, and that’s one thing I’ve learned (this year).”
At Sumrall, a state championship is always the goal. This year, however, Knight set the goal of just winning the region title. After all, 2018 was the first time Sumrall hadn’t won a region championship since Knight took over 12 years ago.
Knight put more stress on winning a region title this season because he experienced how difficult it was to progress through the 4A postseason as a No. 2 seed last season. It’s a difficult road regardless, but it’s slightly easier as a region winner than it is when a team doesn’t have home field advantage every round but the first in the postseason.
“We stressed that more this year than any year,” Knight said. “I think our eyes, for the most part, needed to be focused on that because we felt like we were good enough to go far and win a state championship, but I wanted them to have that shorter goal.”
The Bobcats always play a difficult schedule, but there are a lot of different factors Knight takes into account when putting together his schedule every season. Does he have enough arms to play three or more games a week? Are his players experienced enough to handle playing bigger schools?
The biggest addition to the 2019 campaign was playing in the Perfect Game Showdown in Alabama. Sumrall had enough arms and talent to play four games in three days against really good competition. The Bobcats went 2-2 in the Showcase against four teams with a combined record of 95-54.
“We always schedule big and schedule tough teams, but you also have to be aware if you have the group who can handle it,” Knight said.
The Bobcats will lose a lot of production next season, but that’s not new for Knight. He plans on using the summertime to get the new faces on the varsity team ready for 2020 season.
“This summer is different,” he said. “We want our varsity playing together. They’ll be allowed to play some travel ball, but we’re going to play in the month of June. We’ll be able to see some guys in different positions.”