Lost in the long baseball shadows of Columbia County powerhouse programs, the small Catholic school in Augusta with a No. 1 ranking wasn't feeling the love.
Then a TV crew from Atlanta rolled into Aquinas High School last week and started orchestrating a profile to be aired at 7:30 tonight on Georgia Public Television. Coach Mike Laney called it a "21/2-hour distraction," but the players had a blast.
"No offense, but we hadn't gotten anything in The Augusta Chronicle and all the sudden we've got -- not a newspaper but a television show -- coming down from Atlanta to talk to us," senior shortstop Andrew Williams said. "It kind of let us know that we're here for real and we're here to stay."
The 16-1 Irish are the top-ranked team in Class A and are dreaming about joining the likes of Greenbrier, Evans, Harlem and Augusta's Westside as modern-era state champs. They've even got people at Aquinas thinking about something other than soccer.
"I think we're a legitimate contender," Laney said.
In his 14th season at the Irish helm, Laney has never had a team like this one. With a roster of 20 players, 11 are seniors, including eight starters.
"It's kind of a crazy number of seniors at a single-A school," Laney said. "Just never had this many talented kids on the field together at one time. Not even close. This is far and away the most talented team we've ever had."
His biggest stars all drew college offers -- shortstop Andrew Williams (Presbyterian), right-hander Andrew Foushee (Presbyterian) and infielder/pitcher Drew Garren (Andrews College). Foushee transferred from Westminster and established himself as the Irish ace, though it was Garren who shut down Georgia Military College last week for the first Aquinas no-hitter since Blake Quarles in 2001.
"Those are the three guys that have been above and beyond," Laney said. "All the other seniors have been kind of steady -- not any superstars but just good solid players."
Said Williams: "I think the biggest thing that's most special about this team is you don't know who's going to get the big hit to win a game."
Aquinas beat favorite Providence Christian in last year's playoffs before losing to eventual state champion Calvary Day.
"In my opinion (Providence Christian is) the team to beat and we feel like we match up with them," Laney said of a potential championship matchup if Aquinas can snare the regional top seed.
Laney doesn't want to accept Aquinas' order in the athletic pecking order, even on his own campus.
"It's a soccer school still until we do something like win a state championship," he said.
But it's the regional baseball hierarchy that bothers him most.
"We're a stepchild. We know that," he said.
This team, Laney hopes, has the chance to change that perception. He believes this class can prove to future players that there is baseball life on the south side of Interstate 20 as well.
"If we get a little pub it helps us a helluva lot because we've got kids on the fence out there," Laney said. "We've got these moms and dads out there going to St. Theresa's and they're trying to make a decision on where they want to send their kids and 90 percent of their decision is baseball and not religious. They're going to send them to Greenbrier or Lakeside because they think they can win as opposed to sending them to Aquinas where they're going to get a great education and be in a Catholic environment, plus they play good ball.
"That's the thing that gets us. We've got to be seen so that moms and dads in Columbia County know that there's a baseball team over here that plays pretty good ball. That's what we're after."
Aquinas hoped to make a statement Monday night by going over to Lakeside and notching a defining victory, but the Irish couldn't overcome a five-run inning with two outs in the third by the Panthers in a 7-3 loss. Aquinas' rally stalled with the bases loaded in the final inning.
"We thought this might be the year we get over the hump," Williams said. "You hate to lose, but a reality check might have been exactly what we needed."
That loss did nothing to slow down the team's stated goals. The group of seniors who have played together for years are well on their way to a potential title of their own.
"We're definitely learning how to win," said Williams. "Before our class got here, we were decent but never really that good. Now we've won 20 games the last two years and there's almost no way we won't win 20 games this year. Right now we're not as consistent as we need to be, but we've got the talent, we've got the arms and we've got the sticks."
As for the future, Aquinas hopes this senior class leaves a legacy of winning that will continue after they're gone. With talented freshmen on the team and a stout junior varsity program, it has potential to weather a senior exodus.
"It's going to hurt losing 11 seniors; no school just rebounds from that," Williams said. "But I don't see any reason why we should be terrible next year or the year after that."
With its record and new media profile, this year's team is finally getting its due.
"I'd just assume fly under the radar and knock off a Providence Christian in the playoffs," Williams said. "But I think those days are over."
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.