Coaches have a way of foreseeing how seasons will play out, and a big part of that is to make sure they aren’t surprised when things veer in a different direction.
Once in a while, though, those best-laid plans don’t exactly stay true to course.
In the case of Walker’s 2017 season, that was a good thing.
The Wildcats put strong bookends on a memorable 16-18 campaign, culminating with an unprecedented Class 5A playoff run and that surprised longtime coach Randy Sandifer.
He was in for another surprise when his Livingston Parish peers voted him the 2017 All-Livingston Parish Coach of the Year.
“I was very surprised when we added up the vote that night,” Sandifer said with a chuckle. “Because so many guys’ teams had great seasons. When I got home, I told my wife that I think it means more to me this year than last year because those kind of individual awards usually go to the guy whose team had a great year and did what everybody expected.
“This whole season meant a little more to me because what we accomplished wasn’t just based on our record. Our guys came together and got better and that’s what coaches love to see.”
Indeed, this was a Walker team that wasn’t exactly burdened with high expectations after losing 13 seniors from a crew that went into the final game of the 2016 regular season with a chance to claim the District 4-5A championship.
But the cupboard wasn’t empty, which was something Sandifer was aware of when not many others were. Even he wasn’t sure how the ingredients would mix together, although he knew the returning Wildcats had plenty of potential.
“I thought we could be OK because these kids who were going to be seniors had bided their time for year or two,” Sandifer said. “It was really rewarding to see them have success. They had been in the program for 3-4 years and hadn’t always gotten playing time at the varsity level because we had so many older guys.”
What Walker could build around was one of the top pitchers in the parish in junior Lane Thomas, as well as a small handful of seniors who had logged significant innings in 2016 – especially Bailey Gautreaux and Kyle Guidry.
When the Cats took the diamond early on, they were up and down but managed to hover around .500 against a tough non-district schedule, buoyed by a 7-0 Thomas-led win over eventual 4-5A champion Zachary.
District play was a struggle when an injury bug bit Walker, off-the-field troubles caused a ripple and the offense went into a team-wide slump. The Wildcats finished 2-8, but oddly enough, narrow losses to Denham Springs High (3-2) and Zachary (3-1) to close the regular season were signs of progress.
“They had a tough year with a lot of injuries but Randy got his guys to play through it and hang around,” Yellow Jackets’ coach Mark Carroll said. “They beat us once and made it real tough the second time we played them.
“When you lose as many guys as they did from the year before, it’s going to take a while for things to come together. Expectations can be low from the kids and the parents and you’ve got to convince them to raise those expectations because that’s what successful programs do.”
Sandifer and his assistants, Mike Palermo and Terry Peters, juggled roles as psychologists and coaches well and when the playoffs arrived, Walker emerged as a new and dangerous team.
Thomas was spectacular on the mound in a 2-0 victory at Destrehan in a first-round upset, the 27th-seeded Cats’ first postseason success since 2001 and first ever as a 5A program.
They weren’t finished.
In the regional round, Walker lost its opener at New Iberia 19-9 but surged back for 11-10 and 5-0 wins the following day. Guidry was the star with a two-run walk-off home run and the shutout on the mound, but the entire series was symbolic of how and why the Wildcats stayed alive with grit and determination as the backbone.
“When we beat Destrehan, the guys realized that we could be pretty good,” Sandifer said. “We had fought for 5-6 years to get out of that first round, so breaking through was big. This wasn’t the most talented team we had and that game with Destrehan wasn’t a great matchup for us, but we found a way and the kids caught fire after that.”
The Cinderella run ended in the state quarterfinals the next week with two losses at Sam Houston, but even those showed how far the Wildcats had come: Both came down to the final at-bat before Walker succumbed.
“They just kept working hard and won some playoff games, which they hadn’t done in a while and that’s a tribute to Randy and his coaches,” Carroll said.
“Sometimes it takes a lot more than just coaching baseball. Sometimes you have to convince kids how good they can be and I think Randy did that pretty well this season.”
Added Sandifer, who has been the Walker head coach for five years after two as an assistant, “This was as rewarding a year as I‘ve ever had with way we finished ended up playing. That’s something for those kids to remember.”
2017 All-Livingston Parish Baseball
P Taylor Higgins, DSHS | SR
P Lane Thomas, Walker | JR
P Bailey Simoneaux, Live Oak | JR
C Preston Faulkner, Live Oak | SR
C Braden Doughty, DSHS | SR
1B Brock Batty, DSHS | SR
2B Scott Robertson, Holden | JR
3B Bailey Gautreaux, Walker | SR
SS Cade Doughty, DSHS | SO
OF Dillon Boyle, DSHS | SR
OF Garrett Barrilleaux, Live Oak | SR
OF Tyler Allbritton, Albany | SR
UT Hunter Dupuy, Maurepas | SO
UT Dawson Hutchinson, Holden | SR
UT Nick Cacioppo, Live Oak | SR
UT Cameron Guitreau, FSHS | SR
UT Keith McKigney, Springfield | JR
Most Valuable Player
Preston Faulkner, Live Oak | SR
Offensive Player of the Year
Cade Doughty, DSHS | SO
Defensive Player of the Year
Hunter Dupuy, Maurepas | SO
Coach of the Year
Randy Sandifer, Walker
P Remington Watts, FSHS | SR
P Brendon Baker, Live Oak | SR
P Chase Jeansonne, Walker | JR
C Micah Champagne, FSHS | SR
1B Tyson Stewart, Doyle | 8th
2B Mason Inman, Walker | SR
3B Matt Kreutzer, Springfield | JR
SS Ryan Morris, Live Oak | SR
OF Brett Davis, Albany | JR
OF Tristan Taylor, Walker | JR
OF Landon Roberts, Live Oak | JR
UT Kyle Guidry, Walker | SR
UT Dawson Albin, DSHS | JR
UT Hunter Duplessis, Maurepas | JR
UT Tristan Jones, Doyle | JR
Albany – Brock Bennett (FR), Reid Rayborn (FR), Joey Smith (SO), Slade Bankston (FR)
DSHS – Kaleb Slayton (SR), Layne Didier (SR)
Doyle – Colten Newsom (JR), Trenton Mizell (JR), Mason Davis (SO)
French Settlement – Jackson LeBourgeois (SR), Brice Fruge (SO), Bryant Johnson (JR)
Holden – Dustin Rushing (SO), Cole Forbes (SO), John Sharp (SO)
Live Oak – Gabe Schenk (JR), Lane Hutchinson (SO), Tristin Cosby (SR)
Maurepas – Cole Bovia (SO), Dillon Quamme (SR)
Springfield – Ty Moran (JR)
Walker – Hunter Murray (SR), Rush Azlin (JR), Don Paul Smith (SR)
Randy Rosetta is Sports Editor of The Livingston Parish News.
You can reach him at (225) 610.5507
Follow on Twitter: @RandyRosetta