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Lowndes gives Rams formidable opponent

COVINGTON - The Rams should not feel any pressure as they play in the Class AAAAA baseball tournament starting on Friday in Valdosta against Lowndes.

After all, Newton has not made the playoffs since 2006 and has not advanced past the second round since 2004 when the Rams reached the quarterfinals.

But the players also realize just how much is riding on this game, causing them to feel the pressure.

"On one hand, there's a lot of pressure. On the other hand, there's not," Newton coach Ty Hensley said. "One because we haven't been there and nobody expects us to really do anything. On the other hand, for that very same reason, we haven't been there in a while and it's time to be successful."

The Vikings enter the playoffs winning 10 of their last 13 games. The Rams have won five of their last 16.

Hensley said his team has a chance to surprise the No. 1-seeded Vikings on the road.

"I think we match up pretty well," he said. "We've got talent pitching. But the biggest thing is between our ears. It's a confidence thing. We need confidence with our pitches and our ability to locate and change speeds. I think we can do that."

In order for Newton's primary pitchers - Chris Moss, Nick Hembree and Darius Hill - to keep the Rams in the game, they will have to find a way to paint the corners when throwing offspeed pitches.

If they can do that, the Rams should be able to keep the game from getting out of hand.

"That's one thing that we've struggled with this year," Hensley said. "Our pitchers are going to have to step up, and hopefully we'll be able to work off the plate and get that call consistently. With the breaking ball, sometimes they're on, sometimes they're not. That's a confidence-breaker."

Lowndes is hitting .317 as a team, with Adam Rigoni (.480), Zac Freeman (.382), Brandon Gilbert (.352) and Mike Moore (340) pacing the team.

Newton will have to hit Lowndes' ace pitcher Matt McCall early and often. McCall finished the regular season with a 6-2 record and an ERA of 3.02.

In the 531/3 innings he's pitched, McCall has given up 45 hits, including six home runs, while walking 24 batters, hitting three and fanning 55.

Lowndes' other two main pitchers, Gabe Cason and Hayden Martin, ended the season with a 2-2 record and ERAs of 3.64 and 7.00.

"If we can hit (McCall), I think we can compete, possibly pull out a win, if we can hit the way we've been doing lately and start early, instead of late in the game," Hensley said. "We have to be confident and know that we can play with them.

"We preform best when we're more relaxed and not put too much pressure on ourselves. When we put a lot of pressure on ourselves, we go up there tense. They just have to play the game, enjoy it and have a good time with it."

The Rams plan on spending Thursday night in Valdosta so they can be relaxed come game time.

"We're going to practice Friday morning and take some live (batting practice) and get some confidence built up before the game," said Hensley, "as opposed to getting off the bus and getting loose and going out there."

Manny Fils can be reached at manny.fils@newtoncitizen.com.