SPANISH FORT — Brayden Cooper provided the walk-off hit that scored Newton Gardner and sealed a 12-11, walk-off win in extra innings for the Spanish Fort Toros over the Saraland Spartans in the …
SPANISH FORT — Brayden Cooper provided the walk-off hit that scored Newton Gardner and sealed a 12-11, walk-off win in extra innings for the Spanish Fort Toros over the Saraland Spartans in the AHSAA state quarterfinals Saturday, May 6.
Gardner reached on a dropped third strike to start the bottom of the eighth inning then advanced to second on a passed ball. Cooper said his objective was to keep the rally going and pass it onto the next hitter, but he got a pitch where he could end things himself.
“My real main goal was to get it to the next guy, just kind of pull it to the right side and move him over to third base that way we hopefully have something to work with,” Cooper said after the game. “Then he just gave me a fastball on the inside part and I did what I was trained to do with it.”
From second base, Gardner immediately knew he had a chance to get home, it was just a matter of getting there as fast as he could. Although the throw did beat him there, Gardner evaded the tag with a sidestep and lunged toward the plate before the umpire ruled him safe.
“‘Be safe,’ that’s what was going on in my head,” Gardner said simply. “I was trying my best, I saw it and I said, ‘Ok I gotta go.’ And then I round third and I wasn’t stopping. I saw his glove come up but I dodged it and ended up a foot safe.”
He nearly didn’t have that chance to score from second since Toro head coach JD Pruitt initially thought to run a sacrifice play. But after the second passed ball, he went all in on his lineup.
“I’m kind of looking at our lineup there and I said, ‘You know what, we’ve got a runner in scoring position so I’m not going to sacrifice here,’” Pruitt recounted. “I had a conversation with (Cooper) before he went to the plate and I said, ‘Know what you’ve been getting a lot of, sit on it and stay through the middle of the field.’ He was able to get his barrel head out in front and put a good swing on it.”
Even if it hadn’t been Cooper that played the hero, Pruitt knew one of his guys would come through.
“(Cooper’s) been a guy that’s hit for us all year long and I had all the bit of confidence in him in that moment and even the guys behind him so he just so happened to be the guy out there that came through for us,” Pruitt said.
“A whole lot of numb and a whole lot of happy,” says Cooper
And so Spanish Fort spilled over the dugout railing and swarmed Cooper in the infield then turned around to celebrate with Gardner in front of the student section behind home plate.
.@SpanishFortBsbl is moving on! The Toros storm Brayden Cooper after his walk-off hit scored Newton Gardner to advance to the state semifinals on a 12-11 win. The @sfhs_toros are Round 4-bound #ALHSBaseball @AHSAAUpdates pic.twitter.com/leAHpRGefF— Gulf Coast Media Sports (@GCMSportsAL) May 6, 2023
“I’m feeling a whole lot of numb and a whole lot of happy. I sat down in the huddle and just said, ‘What just happened?’ It’s unreal, it’s like a dream; you grow up wanting to do stuff like this,” Cooper said. “We worked so hard in the offseason for moments like this and it’s just great to see it payoff.”
“I felt like a hero but the real hero was Coop hitting me in,” Gardner said of the moment where his teammates surrounded him.
Spanish Fort outlasts four lead changes, three ties
In what served as the rubber match of a three-game quarterfinal series, it was tightly contested with four lead changes and three ties throughout the eight-inning contest. Pruitt said that resiliency is just one of the things that defines this group of Toros.
“That’s what they are, they’re a bunch of fighters. We’re not the most talented team I’ve ever coached but this is by far the best team that I’ve ever had,” Pruitt said. “They’re a great team and they continuously find a way. We kind of use this term with them, ‘Champions respond and champions run toward adversity.’”
The Toros are now running toward a semifinal series against the Stanhope Elmore Mustangs that will come on the road in Millbrook starting May 11.
“The message isn’t going to change for us, we’re going to go up there and we’re going to be us, I can guarantee you that,” Pruitt said. “We’re going to get back to work and start prepping for those guys to get locked back in to have another emotional series. We’ve got to go on the road, which is a challenge within itself but I expect our guys to respond.”
“Play with no regrets and give everything you’ve got, that was our motto and we weren’t giving up. We were fighting to the end and that’s what happened,” Gardner said.
“It’s so great,” Cooper said of going to the semifinals. “We just worked so hard for this that it’s finally coming to fruition and paying off for us.”
“Our crowd, this atmosphere, you’re not going to find a better one in high school baseball. The way our student section showed up for us, that speaks volumes about these guys,” Pruitt said.