May at Choccolocco Park? Oxford can dream after sweeping Arab to break first-round curse

Joe Medley, The Anniston Star, Ala.
·5 min read

Apr. 24—OXFORD — There's a first time for everything, and May baseball at Choccolocco Park just became more possible for fourth-ranked Oxford.

The Yellow Jackets feasted on Arab pitching in Friday's Game 1 then rallied against Knights ace Gavin McBride in Game 2 to sweep their first-round Class 6A playoff series 10-0 and 7-3.

Oxford (29-6) advanced to the second round for the first time since 2016 and will play at Jasper (22-12), which beat Mortimer Jordan 5-4 in Game 3 on Friday.

Should Oxford win the series at Jasper, the Yellow Jackets could return home for a quarterfinal or semifinal series in May. That means Oxford would play on Choccolocco Park's signature field in May for the first time since the park opened and became the team's new home field in 2016.

"In the game of football, if you're practicing on Thanksgiving, you've had a good year and set yourself up or success," Oxford coach Wes Brooks said. "In the game of high school baseball, if you play in May, then you've set yourself up for a good opportunity, whatever that may be."

Playing at Choccolocco Park in May "would be cool," Brooks said. "It would be cool."

A lot of heartbreak and a touch of circumstance have kept it from happening.

Oxford lost first-round Game 3s in 2017 (Homewood), 2018 (Hazel Green) and 2019 (Hartselle). The Yellow Jackets won Game 1 in all three series.

Key injuries to Brennan McCullough (broken jaw) and Brody Syer (knee) in 2017's final regular-season series impacted Oxford at Homewood. Jacksonville State signee Isaiah Magwood's Game 3-winning hit stopped Oxford cold in 2018, and Hazel Green went on to win the state title.

"I felt like in 2018, the first round was the state championship," Brooks said. "Then Hazel Green goes on to win.

"They were deep. We were deep. We had a good senior class that year."

Rain forced Game 2 of the 2019 Hartselle series to Saturday, and the COVID-19 pandemic stopped the 2020 season in mid-March.

Oxford made the third round in 2016, after beating Homewood at home on April 30, but played Cullman on the road May 7.

Such is the sad tale of how a program like Oxford's, which won a state title in 2012 and made the 2009 finals, hasn't had the chance to play on Choccolocco Park's signature field in May.

Current players were plenty aware of history going into Friday's sweep of Arab.

"We did our best to block it out of our minds and play our game," said Peyton Watts, Friday's Game 2 winner and a hero at the plate in both games. "I think that's what led us to the victory.

"We didn't let it get to us. We didn't let it affect us. We came out here and balled out."

But not without anxiety.

McBride started Game 2 for Arab and sent a shiver early, striking out Oxford's order in the first inning. It put him on the way to 11 strikeouts before he hit 109 pitches in six innings and gave way to the bullpen in the seventh.

Oxford had to solve McBride after he exceeded scouting reports that had him hitting mid-70s on pitch speed. He clearly looked faster early Friday.

"I'm like, that's not 76, and I sent our guy back with a radar gun, and it was 85," Brooks said. "Then we sat on fastball for a little bit."

Arab went up 3-1 with three runs in a third-inning rally that included Hayden Turner's RBI double. A passed ball helped to set up John Wesson Johnson's RBI single, and another run scored on an error.

Oxford answered with R.J. Brooks' RBI single in the top of the fourth. Sam Robertson's bloop single and Watts' RBI grounder gave the Yellow Jackets a 4-3 lead in the fifth.

Oxford added three seventh-inning runs on Hayes Harrison's two-run single and R.J. Brooks' squeeze bunt.

"These guys, you just feel something special about them," Wes Brooks said. "I was just proud of the way we just fought back to get in it.

"That's this team. They know they're never out of the fight."

Game 1

Oxford 10, Arab 0: Oxford scored in all five at-bats, including Chance Griner's game-ending single to score pinch runner Caleb Robertson from third base in the fifth inning.

The Yellow Jackets' biggest frame came in the third, when Watts, Harrison and R.J. Brooks tripled and scored. Watts scored on Carter Johnson's fly to shallow center field, Harrison on a passed ball and Brooks on Landon Howell's squeeze bunt.

Watts called the three-triple inning "something you don't see every day."

Starter Trey Mooney and reliever Hayden Gallahar combined to hold Arab to three hits. Mooney worked four innings, allowing two hits and striking out three batters.

Arab, playing its first baseball season since moving up from 5A, finished 15-20.

"We were good last year," said Arab coach Chad Hudson, who served as head coach at Saks and White Plains before going to Arab. "We had nine seniors, seven senior starters, and lost most of our arms, and 6A has been a challenge for us.

"We made the playoffs in football and have to go to Pinson Valley. We make it in baseball and have to go to Oxford."

Sports Writer Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter: @jmedley_star.