By BRET H. McCORMICK
Greg Briggs is no stranger to important baseball games, and now he’s facing perhaps the biggest baseball games in Rapides Parish in two decades.
Briggs led Live Oak to a Class 5A runner-up finish in 2014 on his way to being named 5A Coach of the Year by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association. A Bolton alumnus who played baseball at Northwestern State, Briggs elected to move his family home to Alexandria from the Baton Rouge area a few years later, and he’s been working to get back to that point ever since.
After spending two years as an assistant at Pineville, Briggs took over the Alexandria Senior High baseball program in 2019. Now in his fourth season at the helm of the Trojans, he has the once-mighty baseball program two wins away from a trip to Sulphur and a berth in the Division I Select state tournament.
The team standing in the way? None other than District 2-5A and Rapides Parish rival Pineville. The two teams are scheduled for a Division I Select quarterfinal series at ASH’s Don Boniol Field. Game 1 is set for 7 p.m. tonight followed by Game 2 at the same time on Friday. If necessary, a decisive third game would be played at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
“I don’t think it gets any bigger than this, and I think it’s great,” Briggs said. “I told (Pineville baseball) coach (Cullen) Guerriero on the phone last night that I think it’s great for Central Louisiana baseball. Our softball teams have done really well. Buckeye wins it in Sulphur. I thought that was great. Our baseball teams are doing really well in the area, and most of our guys are still in it.
“I think it’s huge. I think it’s great for the area. It’s great for our fan base and our school, and I think it’s great for Pineville’s fan base. I think it’s nothing but a positive.”
“It’s going to be one of those (games) where it’s probably going to be one of the most populated games we’ve played in all year,” ASH senior left-handed pitcher Joe Bordelon said. “It’s a cross-town rival coming in – big game, winner goes on the road to Sulphur. That adds a lot to it, but you just can’t look at it that way. It’s going to be in the back of your head, but you have to go out there and play it like every other normal game we’ve had all season and get the win.”
ASH and Pineville split two games during the regular season with each team winning on the road. Pineville took the first game, 6-2, at Don Boniol Field, but the Trojans responded the next day, winning 5-4 at Pineville.
Pineville senior Brady Huffman was brilliant on the hill in the Rebels’ win in the first game, giving up just one hit and one earned run while striking out nine before exiting with one out in the seventh inning after reaching the pitch-count limit.
Alex Courville, Colton Hardy and Matt Warden each had two hits for the Rebels, while sophomore Wes Oates hit a two-run home run off Bordelon as the Rebels piled up 10 hits in the game.
The second game was a different story though, as ASH senior lefty Austin Lorenz scattered seven hits with nine strikeouts in six innings while senior Drew Tomlin pitched a hitless seventh inning to earn the save.
Warden was 3-for-3 with a double for the Rebels but was the only Pineville player with multiple hits in the game. The Trojans, meanwhile, were led by home runs by Tomlin and senior right fielder John Barajas. Seven ASH players had hits in the game, led by Tomlin’s two, and both Tomlin and designated hitter Josef “Blue” Bayone drove in two runs.
Those two games are in the past, though, Briggs said, and their outcomes should have no bearing on who wins this series. Because the two teams know each other so well, Briggs said he expects the team that executes the best and makes the fewest mistakes to come out on top.
Briggs’ first year leading the Trojans was halted by Covid-19, and that group of freshmen are now the seniors leading this year’s team deep in the playoffs.
The Trojans lost to No. 1 seed and state powerhouse Barbe in the second round in 2021 and were knocked out by Central High of Baton Rouge in the first round last season. Both of those Trojan teams carried lower seeds, but this year’s version entered the postseason with a 21-8 record and the No. 3 seed in the new Division I Select format.
The Trojans were a powerhouse under Boniol, winning 3A state championships in 1988 and 1989 before finishing as runner-up in 1990. They’ve advanced to the state title game just once since, taking home the 4A runner-up trophy in 2001.
Although ASH has been a perennial playoff team over the past decade, this is the Trojans’ first trip to the quarterfinals since falling to Jesuit in the Class 5A quarterfinals in 2014. They haven’t advanced to the semifinals since 2002, a 21-year drought they are hoping to break this week.
This year’s version of ASH baseball features a good mixture of veterans and youth. The seniors – Bordelon, who also plays first base; Barajas, who doubles as a left-handed pitcher and right fielder; Tomlin, a utility infielder and right-handed pitcher; Lorenz and center fielder Chris Clark – a group that started high school the same year Briggs took over the program.
But the Trojans also have leaned on a heavy mix of youngsters, including sophomores Bayone, Daniel Crenshaw, Matthew Crenshaw and Brayden Rachal, and freshmen Clayton Doyal, Caden Extine and Grayson Thibodeaux.
Barajas and Tomlin have been the Trojans’ two most consistent hitters this season. Barajas leads the team in batting average (.430), home runs (5) and runs scored (36) while being second on the team with 40 hits and driving in 28 runs. Tomlin has a team-high 12 doubles and 36 RBIs while being second on the team in batting average (.423), home runs (3) and runs scored (28).
Extine, despite being a freshman, has played all over the infield for the Trojans, is second on the team with 29 RBIs and is tied with Tomlin for second with three homers. Bayone (.299, 18 RBIs) and Clark (.284, 2 HRs, 19 RBIs) also have been key contributors at the plate this season for ASH.
Briggs said he hadn’t decided on a rotation for this week’s series, though it likely will be some combination of Bordelon, Lorenz and junior right-hander Ben Eskew.
Bordelon (5-3, 2.12 ERA), who has signed with LSUE, has the highest upside of all of the Trojans’ arms. His fastball tops out at upward of 90 mph, and both coaches in this series said when he’s at his best, he’s extremely tough to hit.
He has struck out 104 batters in only 46 2/3 innings of work, an average of nearly 2.15 strikeouts per inning. In one game this year, a five-inning no-hitter against West Ouachita, Bordelon struck out 14 of the 15 batters he faced and didn’t allow a single ball to be put in play (he walked one batter, who was thrown out trying to advance to second base).
“When he’s on, he’s got D-1 stuff, and I think everybody in this area knows that,” Briggs said of Bordelon. “When he’s on, he’s really good, but pitching is one of those things where you’re not gonna have your A-game, you’re not going to be at your best every time, and you’ve still got to be able to win games when you’ve got your B-game or your C-game. But when he’s on and he has his stuff and he’s in his groove, he’s as good as I’ve seen.”
While Bordelon is the Trojans’ power pitcher, Lorenz and Eskew have been the most consistent on the mound. Lorenz has a team-high seven victories with a 7-1 record and 2.05 ERA, while Eskew is undefeated (6-0), has a team-leading 1.70 ERA among starters and has walked just six batters in more than 45 innings of work.
Should a save opportunity arise, Tomlin is waiting in the wings. He’s made just five appearances on the season but has three saves, a 0.85 ERA and 12 strikeouts in just 8 2/3 innings.
The Trojans advanced to the quarterfinals by surviving a near home upset from No. 14 seed Holy Cross, which won the first game of the series 5-4 before ASH responded by sweeping a doubleheader 9-0 and 6-5, rallying from a 5-2 deficit in the seventh inning in the latter game to clinch the series.
“We were down three going into the bottom of the seventh, and we just never gave up, never quit,” Briggs said. “That’s kind of what they’ve done all year. I think that shows a lot.”
Clark said he and his teammates showed their mettle while battling from behind against Holy Cross.
“We fight a lot in adversity,” he said. “That game was all adversity. We were behind. We lost our first game. That’s kind of expected to lose. Someone expecting you to lose should make you want to win just that much more.”
Now the stakes get even higher with the Rebels coming across the Red River. The teams play twice annually in District 2-5A. Many of the players have grown up playing with or against each other. Some friendships date back years.
For Tomlin, that person is Courville, Pineville’s first baseman and right-handed pitcher. They attend the same church and spent this past Sunday talking about the game and who would win. For Clark, it’s Pineville outfielders Ahmari Jackson and Greg Willis, whom he’s played travel ball with since they were 10 years old.
“That’s what really brings all the fun into it,” Clark said. “That’s what makes the game that much better because it brings the adversity into it. You’ve been knowing this person – well, I’ve been knowing Ahmari and Greg since I was in elementary school, so playing against them on this big of a stage and where it leads to next, it’s just fuel to the fire.”
Usually when these two teams meet, there’s a lot on the line, including bragging rights for the next year. Since the two teams split in the regular season, this series will determine those rights, and the stakes are even higher with a berth in Sulphur going to the victors.
Clark said he expected there to be plenty of trash talk between the two teams, though he would give Jackson and Willis “that best-friend respect.”
“But it’s competition,” he added. “Whenever you step between those lines, all that friend stuff don’t matter. It’s win or go home.”
“When it comes to a certain point,” Tomlin said, “you just got to put all that best-friend stuff aside and just play the game.”
This series is even more personal for Bordelon since the Rebels came onto his field and beat him earlier this season. He admitted that’s a huge motivating factor for him, no matter which game he ends up pitching this week.
“I think about it every day,” Bordelon said. “I actually woke up this morning and my mom told me, ‘You get to get your getback.’ I was like, that’s right. It lights a fire under you. You’re supposed to be that guy and they end up coming to your place and beat you – it adds a factor. You just get ready and when they come here, it’s going to be a different outcome.”
“As a competitor, I think Joe or anybody, you have to take that personal,” Briggs said.
Clark said he wasn’t really thinking about Sulphur at the beginning of the season, but the Trojans have gotten “better and better” over the course of the year and now making the state tournament is a realistic option.
Tomlin, meanwhile, is hoping to continue his family’s legacy. His dad, ASH assistant Daniel Tomlin, played on the two Trojan state championship teams and later served as ASH’s head coach for eight seasons after playing at Northwestern State and being a volunteer assistant at LSU.
“I’ve been here, I grew up here, I was here at the field, seeing all the players coming here, and he’s always talked about when he played here with all the championships that they’ve won,” Drew Tomlin said. “I just want to be a part of that, and to lead it with this great group of guys we have here, it would be amazing.”