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T-Birds and coach reach first peak together

Posted Wednesday, June 15, 2011, at 12:54 PM

There may not be any Greene County teams left in the mix for a state baseball championship, but there's one left that's a familiar foe to many fans and teams.

The North Central Thunderbirds will make their first appearance at a state baseball finals when they take on defending Class A champion Lafayette Central Catholic Friday night at 7:30 p.m. at Victory Field in Indianapolis.

The game not only marks virgin territory for the Thunderbirds themselves, but for head coach Craig Grow as well.

"At the very beginning they talked about wanting to go to the state," Grow said. "That was the goal at the very beginning of the season."

Grow's teams have been known throughout the years as teams that are fundamentally sound and ready to take on all challenges -- and this team appears to be no different.

"I think they have a hard-nosed, baseball kind of mentality," he said. "Irregardless of what the score is, it's still a ballgame."

After a 20-5 regular season, their path to the title game has taken them through Union (Dugger) (11-0) and Clay City (15-7) at the Shakamak Sectional, Rising Sun (5-0) and Bethesda Christian (6-1) at the Shakamak Regional and Loogootee at last weekend's Jasper Semistate.

The 9-6 win at the semistate in particular is one that Grow cites as an example of how tough and resilient the team is.

"Loogootee played us a great, great game," Grow noted. "They came back and it was a one-run ballgame late then we got a couple of guys on and had a double.

"So with the confidence they've got they feel they can come back."

Now in his 20th year of coaching, Grow has never made a trip to the state finals. He'd spent time heading up the Loogootee Lions and Sullivan Golden Arrows before taking over the North Central program this season.

"I'm very fortunate that I've had the opportunity to coach this team," said Grow, who still teaches at Sullivan High School. "I feel very blessed and it's a great feeling, but one that you can't take lightly.

"We have a lot of people coming back next year, but the way the format is setup in tournament time, you lose one and you're done."

The North Central roster has only one senior -- Craig Bell -- and according to Grow he's been the backbone of the team.

"Craig has been phenomenal at the plate (.575, 13 HR, 43 RBI) and on the mound (6-1, 3.22 ERA)," Grow said. "He's seeing the ball very well, he's hit like six home runs since the tournament started."

The senior has been the undeniable leader on the field and in the record books as well leading the team in almost every statistical category according to his coach.

"He's been a Godsend," Grow said. "He's done a tremendous job."

As for the chore of taking on the defending state champs, Grow says the team will take it just like they have the rest of the teams on their schedule -- with their heads up and their eyes on the final prize.

"We know that anything can happen in a one-game series," Grow said. "That's the advantage that belongs to the underdog or the weaker team, all we have to do is beat them once."

Grow says that despite the LCC record of seven finals appearances in the last nine seasons, his team has a belief that they can overcome.

"It would be an outstanding accomplishment to win the state title," he said. "And I believe we're very capable of doing that."

For fans who wish to follow the North Central game it will be broadcast live on WNDI Radio in Sullivan beginning with the pregame show around 6:30 p.m. and can be viewed live on the web from the IHSAA website at IHSAA.org.

Rick is a sports writer for the Greene County Daily World. He can be reached by telephone at (812) 847-4487 ext. 20. He can be reached by e-mail at rcurl@gcdailyworld.com.



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