Striding through the crowded Athens Bible School gym to the locker room, Hayden Phillips is a polite, unassuming student with a quick smile and a wry sense of humor.
But on the baseball diamond, Phillips, a lanky, 5-foot-11-inch senior, is steely and steadfast as Athens Bible aims for the first Class 1A state championship since winning the title in 2008.
In the first four games this season, Phillips, the Trojans’ starting shortstop, moved over to the mound as a relief pitcher when the Trojans (5-0) needed a few strikeouts to close out a victory.
ABS coach Bill Murrell penciled in Phillips as the starting pitcher against Tanner on Monday, and all the right-handed sinkballer did was strike out nine of 15 batters en route to a five-inning no-hitter and a 12-0 road victory against the 2A Rattlers in a matchup of 2012 playoff teams.
“My arm felt really good but it was my first start as a pitcher, and I wasn’t thinking about throwing a no-hitter. I couldn’t have done it without a great defense and our catcher, Jacob Hagewood,” said Phillips, who started playing baseball when he was five years old. “When I started warming up between the fourth and fifth innings, I knew I had a chance, and I started throwing sidearm. I kept thinking about what (assistant) coach Billy Hall says about making every pitch count, and what (pitching) coach Melvin Miller says about always hitting your spots and making sure to hit the corner.”
Phillips, who can deliver a two-seam or sidearm sinker, retired the last 10 Rattlers, including the final five on strikeouts, and threw 74 pitches for an average of only 4.9 throws per batter.
Murrell said Phillips is the first Trojans pitcher to throw a no-hitter against a playoff-caliber team in at least four seasons.
“It’s early in the season, and I let him pitch more pitches than normal. I just couldn’t pull him when he had a no-hitter going,” said Murrell, who enters his 40th season as head coach with a 706-52 record and 29 playoff appearances.
The sinker, a fast pitch that breaks downward as it reaches the plate, prevented the Tanner hitters from making pure contact and helped induce three groundball outs.
In the bottom of the first inning, the Tanner leadoff hitter reached first on an error but was put out by a force play. In the second, Phillips allowed the game’s only fair ball hit into the air when a Rattler hitter connected on a sharp liner to center but it was snared on the run by centerfielder Carter Corneil.
In the third, Tanner senior catcher Dexter Douglas, who started at linebacker for the state champion Rattlers football team, drew a pass from Phillips, who elected not to challenge him.
“The umpire wasn’t giving me the corner, and he kept fouling off pitches so I walked him — he’s a good athlete,” said Phillips, who also throws a circle changeup, two-seam and four-seam fastballs and a slider.
By Tuesday afternoon Phillips had filed away his individual feat and chatted excitedly about a Thursday doubleheader with 5A Athens.
“The (Tanner) game is over, and it doesn’t do anything for us now,” said Phillips, who celebrated Monday night by grabbing a post-game snack at Chick-fil-A and icing down his sore arm. “We’ll be the underdogs against Athens but it’s going to be one of our biggest games. It’s almost like a playoff game, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Along with fellow seniors Sam Bobo, Jacob Hagewood, Blake Cundiff and Douglas Fields, Phillips said the Trojans’ goal this season is to get past Shoals Christian, the three-time defending 1A champion, in the playoffs and win a state title.
“The goal is to win state, and to beat (Shoals Christian),” Phillips said. “We’ve beaten them twice, and they’ve beaten us twice (in past playoff series) so if we play them this year in the playoffs, it would be like deciding the best of five.”
Athens Bible will travel to Brewer on Friday for junior and varsity games beginning at 4 p.m. The Trojans will play at 4:30 p.m. at Waterloo on Monday