Expectations were raised for the Elmore County baseball team entering this season. And despite missing the postseason for a sixth consecutive season, the Panthers showed huge strides on the field and improved their win total by nine games before finishing the season with a 19-7 record.
“We took another big step in the building process,” ECHS coach Michael Byrd said. “We did a lot of things we haven’t done here in a while. Making the playoffs is that next step now.”
In just two years at the helm of the program, Byrd has brought the Panthers a long way since their three-win season in 2017. Elmore County finished the regular season on a five-game winning streak and was ranked in the Alabama Sports Writers Association poll three times this season but fell victim to a three-way tiebreaker in Class 4A Area 5.
“They understand how far we’ve come,” Byrd said. “There was hurt but two years ago, none of them would have thought the turnaround would be this good and this quick. That helped take the sting out a little bit.”
Elmore County had 10 seniors on its roster this season and saw a large part of the team’s production come from that class. Byrd said those seniors have shown major improvements in the last two years but showed an even bigger jump this season.
“The development of talent has been the biggest thing for us,” Byrd said. “We had a lot of question marks entering the season but we had seniors step up. That’s a tribute to how hard they all worked to get better.”
Seniors Chase Wilson and Trey Brand spent most of the season at the top of the lineup and were key to the offense’s success all year. Taylor Henderson, Austin Downey and Jamie Singleton each recorded at least one four-RBI game this season from the middle of the order.
Downey was the Panthers’ ace on the mound all season and thrived in his final year before going off to Jacksonville State as Elmore County’s first ever Division I signee for baseball.
However, Byrd said he was most impressed with how far Downey has come with his bat and as the team’s shortstop since last offseason.
“He always competes and expects to win,” Byrd said. “He made a giant improvement offensively and defensively. He improved so much from junior year to senior year.”
During the season, Elmore County stopped a number of negative streaks the program had entering the season, including a couple of big wins over its top rivals.
According to Byrd, the Panthers got a win at Tallassee for the first time since 2007 when Downey pitched a shutout for a 2-0 win March 4. Elmore County also got a win over Holtville, its first in the series since 2013 which was the same year the Panthers last had a winning season.
“People are excited for the program,” Byrd said. “We’ve had great turnouts and we’ve been better at home because of our support. Winning is expected now and I think we’re set up to be really good for the next few years.”