That player was having dinner with some of the other seniors on the team, and they all came to a realization.
“The text read something like this: ‘As much as I hate to admit it, the offseason conditioning gave us the edge over King’s Ridge in Game 3.’” Reese recollected.
“After I read that text, that’s when I knew this team had gotten it.”
Mount Paran’s offseason conditioning program included three-day-a-week workouts that pushed the players to their limits. It’s that program that Reese thinks has helped bring the Eagles to the brink of their first state title.
Mount Paran will visit Eagle’s Landing Christian on Saturday to begin the best-of-three championship series. A doubleheader is slated for 4 p.m., with a potential third game set for Monday.
“We started those workouts Oct. 3,” said Reese, the Eagles’ first-year head coach, who previously served as an assistant for Harvey Cochran. “It was a conditioning program. It was cross-fit, it was hard and it was fast. The guys had to perform for short periods of time out in the cold and in the rain if need be, but not if lightning was in the air.
“There wasn’t any real distance to it. Just quick sprints in timed intervals. It helped with our team building and it got the team conditioned to make playing games easier. We’ve also done these quick sprints after our games.”
The results have spoken for themselves.
Mount Paran won the Region 6A championship and entered the state playoffs as the No. 3 seed. The Eagles have since gone 6-1 in the postseason and head into the championship series with a 28-3 record.
Eagle’s Landing Christian, which captured the Region 5A crown, entered the playoffs as the No. 1. The Chargers also have a 28-3 record and have also gone 6-1 in the postseason.
Both teams have a history in the playoffs.
Mount Paran last made the state finals in 2005, losing to Calvary Day, while Eagle’s Landing Christian won its only state championship the following year.
It’s also the teams’ third meeting in as many postseasons. The Eagles defeated the Chargers in the first round of the 2011 state playoffs, with the result reversed in last year’s second round.
“This is like the rubber match, especially for our seniors,” Reese said. “Eagle’s Landing is a tough ball club. They’re intense on every at-bat and they keep coming at you. They’re like us with the nucleus of the club back from last year, and they’ve all come to play.
“Playing in this series is huge for our seniors. They want to leave the program better than they found it. They saw the field being built and the campus being built. They’ve been to the sweet 16 twice, so this is the end of all that they’ve experienced.”
Although it will be the end, it’s the beginning that has brought Mount Paran this far.
“I think the offseason program helped with the regular season mentally,” Reese said. “The team doesn’t break stride and get down on each other. Whether it’s offense or defense, guys pick each other up instead of being down. That’s been the key. They are closer to each other.”
That camaraderie hasn’t wavered all season and, according to Reese, has been evident during practice this week.
“Their attitude this week has been the same all year,” Reese said. “They’re preparing like we have two more weeks left in the season. The intensity level is good and guys are getting work in and going hard.
“(Our) 2005 team got hot in the playoffs. This team has played well physically all year, and I think the team is peaking mentally right now. Their intensity level is high. This is a talented group. Special stuff is happening here.”
In order for Mount Paran to have a special finish to its season, it will need to maintain the level of play that has brought it this far, especially against a talented Eagle’s Landing Christian roster that includes two players with major league ties — Jacob Heyward, the brother of Atlanta Braves outfielder Jason Heyward, and Dazmon Cameron, the son of former All-Star Mike Cameron.
“The key to this series, and to any game, is to always throw strikes and make routine plays,” Reese said. “We have to pitch ahead and turn double plays when they’re there. Pitching and defense will be the key.
“Our intensity at the plate has been there, too, the last few playoff series. If we can keep stringing together at-bats, we’ll give ourselves a chance.”