Oxford Rebounds From Slow Start For Fast Finish

Yellow Jackets eventually fulfilled high expectations




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Expectations were high for Oxford (Ala.) High heading into the 2012 season even though the Yellow Jackets had missed the state playoffs in 2011. They started at No. 8 in the Baseball America Preseason Top 50, but stumbled mightily right out of the gate.

Oxford lost six of its first nine games by one run and dropped out of the Top 25 with a 3-6 record. But the Yellow Jackets won eight in a row and were 17-8 as they trekked north to the USA Baseball National High School Invitational in Cary, N.C. With 2011 in the back of their minds, the Yellow Jackets weren't going to let a slow start interfere with their long-term goals.

The team played its best when it counted most and finished the season with the school's first state title.

"Last year, we had the same team plus a few guys and didn't even make the playoffs," outfielder Matthew Goodson said. "We were hot at the beginning, but didn't win when it mattered. This year, that was our whole goal, to keep grinding and win the games we knew we had to win. The whole year has been focusing on grinding games out. It turned out well for us."

It turned out well indeed.

Oxford lost the opening game of the NHSI before bouncing back to win two more. The team carried the momentum back home and was sitting at 29-11 as the state tournament started.

The strength of Oxford's squad was in its pitching, with three starters committed to play in college and playing on scouts' radars. Ace Tucker Simpson, a 6-foot-7 righthander committed to Florida, sits in the high 80s with a very deliberate delivery. Simpson added a pitch this year that made him stronger as the season went on.

"He had developed a cutter or slider that has made him a 10-times better pitcher than in years past," head coach Wes Brooks said. "At the beginning of the season he didn't have enough confidence in it. I thought it made him a much better pitcher."

Simpson finished the season 8-3, 2.05 with one loss coming against American Heritage High (Plantation, Fla.) at the NHSI. He hit a groove late in the season and was virtually untouchable. He threw a no-hitter in a conference game, a perfect game in the first round of the state tournament, and a one-hitter in the finals.

The Yellow Jackets' No. 2 was righthander Jackson Stephens, an Alabama signee who went 14-1, 0.96. Righthander Zach Lovvorn served as the No. 3 and was arguably the team's best draft prospect and ended up getting popped in the sixth round by Kansas City. A 6-foot-2, 180-pound Samford signee, he pitches with an average fastball that has good life and can touch 94 mph and also works with a slider that can be average. He burst onto the scene by throwing a one-hitter at the NHSI.

Lovvorn was drafted by the Royals in the sixth round and quickly signed for $275,000. Stephens was the only other player to be drafted off the Yellow Jackets roster. He was an 18th-round pick of the Reds and already signed for a $100,000 bonus.

Stephens pitches in the high 80s and was a strong complement to Simpson. They routinely shut teams down in back-to-back outings and were called upon in the same second-round contest against Pell City High. Simpson pitched seven strong innings, but the game went to extra innings and Stephens threw the next six. In the top of the 13th, Goodson hit a home run to make it 3-2 and Stephens closed the door in the bottom half. Lovvorn took the ball in Game Two and the Yellow Jackets won 5-2 to advance.

"We did have an incredible staff," Goodson said. "They were amazing for us this year."

Offensive Shift

Oxford's offense has been very strong in the past, but things weren't clicking in the beginning. Goodson missed time early with a hamstring injury and Brooks feels their style wasn't conducive to new equipment. It's been well-documented that amateur baseball has seen a decline in offense with the new bats and Oxford was feeling the effects.

"The way the bats changed a little this year, we were a team that hit a lot of home runs the year before," Brooks said. "We were hitting those long fly balls. Me as a coach, not bunting when we should have."

Brooks admitted their pitching kept them in games and had them feeling they only needed to find ways to score three or four runs to have a shot at winning. Goodson led that charge, hitting .400 with nine home runs and 17 stolen bases.

That season-long trend continued in the state finals, as pitching stayed the course and the offense took care of business against Fairhope High. Simpson allowed just one baserunner while striking out 12 and Oxford won 2-0. In Game Two, Stephens had a no-hitter into the sixth inning and a 3-1 lead in the seventh. But Fairhope scored four and forced Game Three.

Lovvorn got the start in the finale and got hit around, leaving after two innings with Oxford trailing 5-1. Junior righthander Frazier Taylor, the team's closer when needed, entered and allowed one run. After five innings, Oxford was down 6-3, but Fairhope imploded, walking seven and hitting four. The Yellow Jackets scored six runs in the sixth inning and dogpiled with a 12-7 victory.

"We came out with a chip on our shoulder because we knew had something to prove," Goodson said. "There was added pressure, but this team stuck together. When we were on the field, we played as one."

As the head coach for the school's first state title in baseball, Brooks kept things simple in his reaction.

"It was a good year, a fun year," he said. "We'll remember this one forever."