A veteran Airline squad looks hungry and capable of making a deep run in this year’s LHSAA baseball playoffs.
The Vikings (15-4, 1-1 District 1-5A) dropped from second to fourth in Tuesday’s unofficial LHSAA 5A power ratings after a humbling 11-1 five-inning loss at Captain Shreve last Thursday. But longtime coach Toby Todd’s group remains the best chance for a Shreveport-Bossier school to win a state title in Louisiana’s highest classification since Fair Park in 1970.
“If we play our best baseball, there’s nobody we can’t beat,” senior left fielder Jarrett Bamberg said. “So we’ve just got to worry about us.”
His walkoff single in the ninth inning propelled Airline to a 2-1 win over defending 1A champs Ouachita Christian last Saturday, and it marked the third time this season Bamberg has delivered a big hit after an opponent intentionally walked Peyton Davis. The third baseman led the Vikings with two home runs and a .667 slugging percentage going into Tuesday night’s game at Minden, but no one can match Bamberg’s .424 batting average.
They’re the heart of an Airline lineup Todd said hits better than a year ago thanks to an improved approach at the plate. Still, a deep and talented pitching staff deserves the most credit for avoiding a two-game losing streak all year and ensures the Vikings will be a tough out in the postseason.
Ace Kyle Backhofen’s ERA rose to 2.27 when the Gators got hot against the ULM signee last week, just two days after Cameron Parikh held Captain Shreve to one run in a complete game victory. Cameron Taylor gave up only four hits in six innings before Hayden Waxley held Ouachita Christian hitless for three innings, allowing both pitchers to maintain a season ERA under 2.00.
“Other than a couple of games we’ve thrown well and we’re still hitting the ball OK,” Todd said. “So yeah, there’s a lot of room for improvement but they’re still improving. They’re not content.”
Finding motivation won’t be much of a problem for a strong senior class and its vocal leader, Hayden Waxley. He focuses on doing whatever he can to maintain a positive attitude on the field and in the clubhouse, like helping keep practice loose the day after the loss to Shreve.
They’ve also made sure to remember the pain they felt after getting upset at home against Byrd in their third straight first-round playoff loss. Todd reminds his players constantly that each game matters in terms of playoff seeding, and they’re all looking forward to next week’s two-game series against the Yellow Jackets, who are No. 9 in the latest power ratings.
“We burn every day thinking about losing to Byrd in the first round of the playoffs,” Waxley said. “I think we’ve just got a way deep down inside that we can go farther this year.”
Airline got a taste of its potential playoff competition with a challenging non-district schedule, which featured mostly south Louisiana teams. The Vikings lost twice at No. 1 Lafayette and fell 7-5 at No. 5 Sam Houston, but they went 6-0 against teams ranked sixth through 24th.
Finishing strong won’t be easy in a district featuring four teams ranked in the top 30, and Byrd’s 4-0 start shrinks Airline’s margin of error for defending its title. But Todd said this team reminds him in some ways of the 2008 group which made the state semifinals, an achievement no Shreveport-Bossier 5A school has matched since Byrd in 2009.