Gil Pound: Pound for 7 hours at the ballpark

Apr. 23—I never played a down for former University of Georgia head football coach Mark Richt, but a phrase he coined early in his tenure in Athens has stuck with me these last two decades.

His "Finish the Drill" slogan was printed on T-shirts and written on signs. It headlined hype videos on the Sanford Stadium jumbotron. It was a reminder to see things through and never quit.

I've carried those words with me, sometimes to a fault. In my own playing days, I used them to complete workouts or push myself to that final horn during a game. Later in life, the mantra has driven me to finish what I felt were subpar books, movies or TV shows.

I realize drawing a comparison between reading a few more chapters and not quitting when things get tough in a grueling football game or practice is slightly ludicrous. But it's what this reporter has. That and soft hands from days on end spent sitting at a desk.

Coach Richt's words were ringing in my ears just Wednesday as I was covering a high school baseball doubleheader between GMC Prep and Wilkinson County. The best-of-three series was set up to determine which team would take third in the region, and along with that a slightly more favorable matchup to open the state playoffs. The loser would be fourth and forced to travel to a No. 1 seed.

GMC Prep had won both regular season meetings against neighboring Wilco handily, 15-2 and 10-0. Neither game went the full seven innings due to the mercy rule. The region tournament series felt like a formality.

I went out to Craig Field to make sure everything played out the way everyone expected it to. My 2-year-old daughter Norah came along. She's a big baseball fan. Or maybe she just loves the Ring Pops from the concession stand.

In what was a sign of things to come, we watched as the two teams slogged their way through Game 1. Things got a little testy at times. A combined nine batters got hit, though there didn't seem to be any intent involved as lack of control was likely the culprit. GMC Prep came close to run-ruling the opener, but a four-run fourth by the Warriors slammed that door shut.

Three hours after first pitch, the 'Dogs had a 14-7 Game 1 win. Three hours. Since the addition of the pitch clock, the average Major League Baseball game is only two hours and 40 minutes.

During that first game, I said there was no way I'd stay for the whole second game if it started heading down a similar track. But there was coach Richt in the back of my mind saying, "Finish the drill, Gil."

My wife had come to pick up our daughter for church, so I was no longer on toddler duty. The sun set, causing the day to go from feeling like early summer to early spring. Gnats migrated en masse from the nearby Oconee River, bugging everyone whether they wore red and black or blue and yellow.

Wilco jumped out to an early four-run lead before the Bulldogs bounced back to go ahead in the third. They widened the margin as the minutes added up to rival the gnat count.

Where things were slightly heated in that first game due to the hit batsmen, folks could see the writing on the wall in the second contest. From my perch (a folding chair) along the third-base line, I noticed that coaches and players were getting mighty comfortable out there. Laughs were as common as ball and strike calls as everyone embraced the fact that we were in it for the long haul.

When one base runner stayed at third even though he had an easy opportunity to take home on an overthrow, his coach said, "My grandma uses a walker and she could've scored."

Meanwhile some of the players were trying to do feats of strength. I remember going to an Atlanta Braves versus Tampa Bay Devil Rays game at Turner Field when I was young. Slugger Jose Canseco was playing for Tampa at that point in his career. To this day, he had the most impressive whiff I've ever seen in my years of watching baseball. It's the only time I've heard and entire ballpark come together to audibly react to a swing and miss.

Those are the types of hacks GMC Prep senior Bryce Smith was taking as that second game wore on. It nearly paid off too. He connected with one that flew the left-field fence, but it was left of the foul pole.

The Bulldogs eventually took Game 2 by a score of 17-7 in six innings. Kenny Chesney's emotional "Boys of Fall" played over the loudspeakers shortly after the game ended. Slightly out of place since the song is about football, but not quite as out of place as one might think.

In two games Wednesday, the teams combined to post two football scores and total 45 runs. In three meetings from 2020 to 2022, the GMC Prep and Wilco football teams accumulated just 44 points with final scores of 7-6, 12-6, and 7-6.

I sent the "Headed to Cookout" text to my wife at 10:35 p.m., nearly seven hours after arriving at the ballpark. Chesney's voice blared as I made my way out, and I noticed tears were being shed by some of the senior players who just suited up in their last game on their home field. Maybe seven hours wasn't quite long enough for them.

One thing is for certain, they'll never forget the last time they stepped onto Craig Field to play a ballgame.

Drill finished.