Undefeated Vikings open playoffs versus Jonesboro Thursday

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 31, 2003

VIDALIA, La. &045; It’s hard to imagine a teenager dissecting under the microscope any other game than the one that matters the most.

After all it was on Louisiana high school baseball’s biggest stage and falling two runs shy of bringing your town, school and team its second-ever state title would be agony and torture an al-Qaeda top leader would pass on.

But glancing at Vidalia pitcher Barry Bowden’s eyes when the Class 2A playoff brackets were released Tuesday, the loss that smarts wasn’t last season’s 9-7 crusher to Christian Life, but a 5-3 defeat to DeQuincy in the third round his sophomore year.

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&uot;We left a lot of runners in scoring position,&uot; Bowden said as he replays what went wrong in 2001.

The good news for the Vikings’ crusade back to the state championship game is that DeQuincy, the runner-up in 4-2A this year, is the least of their worries.

Vidalia, who will open with Jonesboro-Hodge at 5 p.m. Thursday, drew the top half of the bracket, which contains the top four teams in the state, including co-No. 1s Vidalia (24-0) and Episcopal.

&uot;It’s got some teams up there, and it’s not going to be easy to go through,&uot; Bowden said of the upper part of the bracket. &uot;Episcopal is the talk of the state right now. They’ve got a real good team, just like they did a year ago.&uot;

Episcopal lost in third round, 13-12, of last year’s playoffs to the same Oakdale team the Vikings defeated to advance to the title game.

It seems like Vidalia has been on a mission since the first pitch was thrown back in late February. Two-dozen teams toed the rubber with the Vikes, and each one of their winning percentages dropped points after seven innings; in some cases just five or fewer.

Vidalia outscored its two district opponents Rayville and Crowville by a combined 40-0 in four games, an area of concern &045; believe it or not &045; for Vikings head coach Johnny Lee Hoffpauir, who currently sits at 346 career wins and not 396 as previously reported.

&uot;One of the fears that I have as the coach is the way we rolled through district,&uot; he said. &uot;April is the time teams should be fine-tuning, and we blew by everyone. I wonder if we can get back to where we were in late March.&uot;

Hoffpauir hopes his team will draw on, for these playoffs, a season sweep of Cathedral and close tournament games where Vidalia was fortunate to come out victorious.

At the Bolton Tournament, the Vikings came up with two runs in their last at-bat to edge Class 3A Bunkie, 3-2, and followed that up with a 2-1 classic duel over Class 4A Leesville where the two teams combined for two hits.

A week later at the Mangham tournament, Vidalia edged another 3A team, Jena, by manufacturing a 2-0 win with just a pair of hits.

&uot;Three-fourths of the way through the season coach was saying he was getting greedy and didn’t want to lose any games,&uot; said center fielder Trey White, the Vikings’ leading hitter with a .530 batting average. &uot;It was just an attitude the team took like why shouldn’t we go all the way with it.&uot;

Hoffpauir, who has one of his best pitching staffs since taking over Vidalia in 1979, is ready to throw Bowden Thursday. The Southern Miss signee is 9-0 this year with a granule-sized 0.34 earned run average.

As a staff, Vidalia pitchers are allowing two runs per game. Bowden was ambivalent on how long he should throw Thursday if the game gets out of hand. He said there’s enough rest time between games that he is fine with pitching deep into Thursday’s game no matter the circumstance.

&uot;We have complete confidence in all three of our starters, but we’re going with our No. 1 guy,&uot; Hoffpauir said. &uot;Somewhere down the line the rest of our rotation will be asked to step up. But we got to win this one to get to the next.&uot;

It’s an experienced bunch Hoffpauir puts on the field. Six starters returned from last season and just four will head for greener pastures after the current one

Hoffpauir has no anxieties of the Vikings riding too high on an ego trip because way back in the winter, after he posted the preseason rankings in which Vidalia was again at the top of the totem pole, his players enjoyed the moment, went to work and have been all business since, he said.

&uot;One thing we’ve got going that is a plus for this team is that we’ve been there,&uot; White said of playing in the finals. &uot;We’ve seen all the publicity and attention, and I think if we made it back we’d be settled.&uot;

&uot;We got to make it first, though,&uot; Bowden followed, not missing a beat, almost interrupting.

Spoken like someone who has had dreams dissolve before his eyes.