As Denmark reliever Smaran Ramanathan walked to the mound to pitch the seventh inning on Wednesday night against Blessed Trinity, the Danes in the dugout and the field could feel a once-impossible dream inching ever closer to reality.
Over the course of the year, the Denmark baseball team, a brand-new group with no seniors, had struggled mightily at times. But there they were, just three outs away from knocking out a nationally ranked Blessed Trinity team and securing a place in the Class 4A state championship series.
Facing the top of the Titans’ vaunted lineup, Ramanathan’s task wasn’t easy, but he made it look that way. He sat down all three of the hitters he faced, and when shortstop Nic Ferrer tossed a grounder to Logan DeLong at first for the final out, the celebration was on.
“When we got that third out it was like, ‘Whoa, we're actually going to the state championship,’” Denmark junior outfielder Matthew Cassandra said. “Everyone was jumping up and down. It was such a good moment to be in with all the fans running on the field and your parents smiling. It was real great.
“It's definitely a big shock. I knew we were going to be good coming in here, but making a state championship's pretty crazy.”
With Wednesday’s win, Denmark became just the second school in GHSA history to make a state championship series in its inaugural season, the first since Greenbrier did it in 1997. However, the most improbable run in Georgia high school baseball this year started not during the playoffs, but on a chilly Monday night in early April. The lessons Denmark has learned since then, as well as some timely hitting, have helped push them to the doorstep of history.
On the night of April 8, Denmark’s hopes of extending their season into May took a huge hit. They’d just lost to Chestatee 6-3 to fall to 1-6 in region play, and although the Danes had outhit the War Eagles 8-6, errors and stranded runners consigned them to their crushing loss. To make the postseason, Denmark had to win all five of its remaining region games, a daunting task that visibly weighed on everyone.
“We were definitely down, because we felt like it was slipping from us,” Cassandra said.
Despite the somber mood, that game also sparked a moment of realization. Denmark knew it had to pull off an improbable feat, but head coach David Smart had seen potential in his team all season. In March, they had bested a good Ola team that’s now playing for a 5A state title, and their region losses to Blessed Trinity and Marist, another traditional power, were close.
The talent was there, but the consistency wasn’t. The Danes’ coaches and young players had really only known each other for a matter of months, but they realized that they needed to start playing like that wasn’t the case.
“I don't know whether it was an epiphany or what, but (it was) the realization that if we were going to do this, this was going to have to be all of us together,” Smart said.
Fueled by their renewed sense of unity, Denmark took its series finale against Chestatee two days later before sweeping White County and West Hall to clinch the No. 4 seed out Region 7-4A on the season’s last day.
Still, Denmark was hardly a favorite to make any kind of run, with the weak strength of the Danes’ late-season schedule raising plenty of doubts about them heading into the playoffs. To top it all off, as a No. 4 seed, Denmark would be playing exclusively on the road. The Danes heard all the questions swirling around them since the start of the postseason, and have been determined to deliver answers.
“Nobody expected us to be doing what we're doing, and probably a lot of people don't think we're very good,” Smart said. “We just go out (and) try to play as hard as we can. There's really no pressure on us.”
Indeed, with nothing to live up to from last year and with a perhaps beneficial lack of experience, the Danes entered their first round matchup against No. 1 seeded Northwest Whitfield with no expectations. By the end of the day, Denmark had taken 8-5 and 11-2 wins to earn a first-round upset, which just made the Danes more confident.
“We walked in not knowing what to expect,” said junior designated hitter Trevor Bryk, who’s been one of the Danes’ top power threats during the playoffs. “Being able to just sweep them, on the bus ride back, we were like, ‘All right, we can hang with every team.’”
The Danes earned another sweep against No. 3-seeded St. Pius X in the second round, but as the teams got better, they began to face elimination again. West Laurens forced a third game with an extra-inning win in the second matchup of the quarterfinals, and Blessed Trinity won the first game of the semifinals to put Denmark on the verge of going home.
Like they did in the regular season, Denmark thrived in those pressure situations. In each of those series, it’s been a variety of players that pushed the Danes forward. Against West Laurens, it was Cassandra, Jack Kream and Gray Wilson, whose late RBI hits in Game 3 won the series for the Danes. Against Blessed Trinity, Kream tied Game 2 with a two-run home run to send it to extras, before DeLong drew a walk-off walk in the ninth to extend the series. Cassandra, Jack Whitlock, Cole Hansen and Dalton Hansard have supplemented that hot hitting with solid pitching.
“A lot of our bats have come alive, especially near the bottom of the order,” Cassandra said. “It's just been a really huge boost.”
In their final test, the Danes will face Northside-Columbus, a team that Smart knows well: He led the Patriots to the state quarterfinals in 2009 and 2010. Even after all Denmark has done, Smart still hears the undeserved reasoning for the Danes’ success from some, whether it be luck or getting a favorable bracket. To him, though, his team has gelled at the right time and has done everything to earn its spot. Over the next few days, he hopes the same grit that brought the Danes here from the cellar of their region can earn them a championship trophy.
“I've been coaching for a while and I've never really experienced anything quite like this,” Smart said. “We were one game from not even being in it. It's kind of surreal, but at the same time you're still kind of locked in and understand that there's still room for improvement. We've got a few days ahead of us to prepare and hopefully get better.”