Diamond Dogs clinch region championship
By Justin Hubbard
The next time you see Morgan County baseball coach Merritt Ainslie, chances are he’ll look different than you remember.
Ainslie agreed to a bet put forth a few weeks ago by one of his players, junior Grant Cofer: If the Diamond Dogs won the Region 8-AAA title, then Ainslie would have to shave his head. With last Tuesday’s 15-0 win over East Jackson, the Diamond Dogs locked up the region championship. Last Friday, Ainslie made good on the deal.
Morgan’s players took turns shaving their coach’s head. They were careful to get every strand.
“They skinned it all the way down to the bone,” Ainslie said. “Luckily, they didn't nick me up too bad because I had Easter pictures the next weekend. But they had a good time. I was watching the boys as much as anything. All of them had grins on their face, and I think they enjoyed it. I had to keep my word with them. A deal's a deal, and they held me to it. It was just something fun and neat.”
All the Diamond Dogs’ fun followed a season filled with hard work. Morgan did not lose a series against any region opponent, and it never lost two games in a row. That led to the Diamond Dogs’ enviable record, which stood at 23-6 (13-2 Region 8-AAA) as of Tuesday.
The championship is just Morgan’s sixth in the last 30 years. Ainslie said he hope this season will start a consistent run of being in the hunt and winning more region titles.
Regardless of what happens during Morgan’s final two regular season games Thursday and Friday or in the state playoffs, 2017 has already brought better results than 2016. Morgan went 12-14 overall and 8-10 in the region last year.
The Diamond Dogs lost six seniors and added three new freshmen between last year and this year. Ainslie said the slight change in the roster – along with the players’ attitude – could’ve been what sparked this season’s success.
“It wasn't a completely new team, but it only takes one or two players to change the dynamic,” Ainslie said. “And this team just really wanted to do well. It's a different attitude. They love winning and they love to play. They're a care-free bunch, but when it comes down to playing and they step onto the field between the white lines, they just turn it on. It's been a fun group to coach.”
Looking at the team’s stats from this season, it’s hard to find something Morgan hasn’t done well.
Its pitchers have a combined 1.19 ERA, and starters Dalton Cole, Ethan Stamps and Hunter Lane have all excelled. Lane led Region 8-AAA in ERA (0.77), followed by Stamps (0.93) and Cole (2.10) to round out the top three.
Ainslie said the coaching staff’s philosophy clicked with the pitchers, and he thinks that’s what makes them such a force on the mound.
“We try to make them as aggressive as possible and let our defense play behind them,” he said. “I don't think any of them are completely overpowering where they can shut the other team down, so what we've convinced them (of) is that it's OK to pitch to contact and let your defense play.”
Offensively, the Diamond Dogs are consistently among the best teams in the region in terms of production. Morgan’s team batting average was .290 as of Tuesday, and five players had batting averages higher than .300.
Cofer (.444) and catcher Dakota Young (.429) have the two highest averages in Region 8-AAA. In addition to his prowess on the mound, Stamps also leads the team in RBIs (16).
There’s not much opposing pitchers can do to the Diamond Dogs, as their lineup is able to deliver on a consistent basis altogether.
“They're pretty strong,” Ainslie said. “We're not real old – a lot of our production comes from Ethan, who's a freshman, and then we've got three sophomores that are really hitting the ball well for us. They really work hard at it, and we've simplified their mentality. … I think the boys know, one through nine, we can hit. They don't go to the plate with pressure saying, 'I've got to carry the offense by myself.' And that really is what it boils down to. One through nine, we have a pretty good hitting squad, and nobody has a ton of pressure on them to perform. If they have a bad day, somebody else is gonna have a good day.”
The team enjoyed a few days off this week thanks to spring break. Ainslie said it’s important for them to rest, but they can’t become complacent as next week’s playoff games loom.
“The first part of the season's over with,” he said. “Now, you're getting to the part where you lose two games and you go home. You can't expect that your early season success and mid-season success is just gonna catapult you all the way through the state playoffs. You have to come and perform every single day and focus every single pitch.”