Hardaway turns in 25 win season
Hardaway shortstop Marcell Byrd tries to turn a double play in a playoff game against Evans, a series the Hawks ultimately lost.

FORT BENNING, Ga., (May 22, 2013) -- The first season is usually the hardest for a head coach, and 2012 was no exception for Hardaway's Chris Gilstrap when he took over the school's baseball program.

A 9-16 season doesn't create a lot of optimism, especially at a school with a rich baseball tradition. Players struggle to adjust to the new coaching style and they start wondering if they'll ever turn things around.

"You start questioning everything you do as a coach," Gilstrap said.

After seven years as an assistant coach at Hardaway, Gilstrap took over for former head coach Tracy Powell in the summer of 2011.

Gilstrap, also a former Hardaway player, said he had a more aggressive approach to the game. For example, other coaches may be a little cautious at holding a runner at third, but Gilstrap, more often than not, likes to give the green light to home and put pressure on the defense.

The growing pains of his first year as head coach was the main reason the team went through one of its worst seasons since he had been at the school, Gilstrap said.

"Any time you have change at the top … it's different," Gilstrap said. "There are ways that I teach differently and ways I get my point across differently."

But the team bought in because it knew it was better than the record indicated. The Hawks lost 10 games in 2012 by one run.

"At least half of those we lost in the sixth or seventh inning," Gilstrap said. "It wasn't that we didn't want to win, we just didn't know how to win."

Gilstrap had 12 players return for 2013, including seven starters. When last season ended, they went into the offseason determined to turn things around, senior center fielder Justin Ellison said.

"This year we said we would learn from our mistakes," Ellison said. "It takes those type of seasons to rise to the top. This year, we took the punch and punched back. We fought all year long."

The turning point in 2013 for the team may have come against LaGrange. It was only the second game of the season, but the Hawks rallied to defeat LaGrange 3-2 in nine innings.

In the next game against Northside (Warner Robins), catcher Josh Anthony hit a triple in the sixth inning to tie the game and the Hawks prevailed in the seventh to win 5-3.

"At that point, I thought, 'These guys are starting to figure it out,'" Gilstrap said.

"I wouldn't say it's night and day, but it's pretty close. I don't know if it was an extra year of experience or just getting better all around."

Whatever the reason, the result was a 25-7 season that included winning streaks of five, eight and seven games, the school's first region championship since 2005 and the first playoff experience for the majority of the players.

"It was a lot of hard work," said senior pitcher Sheridan Coy. "We had a better feel for the coaching. We had a better offseason. It all showed on the field.

"It seemed like no one expected us to do anything but ourselves. I wanted to go out and make a statement."

The Hawks were eliminated by Evans, 7-6, in the rubber match of the second round; and even though the playoffs are a different atmosphere, it wasn't a lack of experience that kept Hardaway from moving on, Gilstrap said.

"We didn't lose to Evans because the stage was too big," he said. "We lost because we got beat that day."

But aside from leaving a state championship on the table, Coy and Ellison said the playoff appearance meant a lot to the seniors on the team. For a school that's been known for baseball, no one wants to be part of a down period, and the seniors can move on knowing that 12 players will be back again next year and the program is in better shape than it was this time last year.

"We jump-started the program into the right direction," Coy said. "There are better things to come in the future."

Page last updated Fri May 24th, 2013 at 10:00