Photo by Kyle Parmley
Oak Mountain returns its top two pitchers, including Joseph Hartsfield, who threw consecutive shutouts in last year’s playoffs. .
If the Oak Mountain High School baseball team is to replicate last season’s success in Derek Irons’ first year at the helm, the players will be responsible for doing so.
“I really try to get the guys to take ownership, especially the seniors,” Irons said. “I really like for them to set goals for the team and kind of what they want the team to be and to go a little deeper.”
Irons wants the leaders on his team to set the goals and the standards themselves, but also to go deeper than simple clichés. Of course, each team wants to win the state championship, but smaller things are attainable.
“Last year, one of our big things was wanting to win 90 percent of our home games,” Irons said. “It’s not just me telling them what I want the team to be. I want to know what they want the team to be. Hopefully, we have a clear vision before the season gets started.”
As for Irons, he is much more comfortable with his surroundings and his group of guys as he enters his second season leading the Eagles.
“With a first-year coach, things just take longer — explaining drills and explaining expectations. This year, things will go quicker, and hopefully, we’ll kind of start at a little bit of a higher level this year,” he said.
Last year’s squad likely surpassed many expectations, as Oak Mountain advanced to the state playoffs for the first time since 2011 and upset top-ranked Vestavia Hills in the first round before losing in extra innings of the rubber game of a second round series to eventual Class 7A champion Hewitt-Trussville.
“Along the way, we had flashes of being really good. What was frustrating for our coaching staff was that, early on, we believed in our team more than our team believed in our team,” Irons said. “But when we put our backs against the wall, we answered, and that’s very encouraging.”
That lack of confidence should be a thing of the past as the Eagles return their top two pitchers from a year ago — Joseph Hartsfield and Gene Hurst. Hartsfield threw consecutive shutouts in the postseason, dominating Vestavia and Hewitt on back-to-back weekends.
“Both those guys pitched well for us all year in area play and in the playoffs. Any time you return your (No.) 1 and 2 starters, that’s a good thing,” Irons said. “There are also several guys that are juniors that can give us some good innings.”
Catcher Mason Williamson returns to keep the battery intact. All three starting outfielders are back as well.
“There’s a lot of experience back,” Irons said. “We’re very fortunate to have so many guys back.”
Irons prioritizes pitching and defense above all else, and those two things were constants for the Eagles in 2016. The offense had its ups and downs, but that is to be expected with any team.
Charles Henderson won consecutive Class 4A state titles in 2013 and 2014 under Irons’ guidance. Even at the 7A level, he has not changed much, if any, of his philosophy.
“Baseball is baseball. The same principles that win in 1A win in 7A. If you can pitch and play defense and execute offensively, you’re going to win a lot of games,” Irons said.