EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was recently published in the Dothan Eagle’s Wiregrass Pride 2019 edition. It’s now being shared on a variety of our digital and social media platforms.
SKIPPERVILLE – The baseball field next to George W. Long High School can intimidate opponents who dare visit Rebel territory.
Panel after panel documents the litany of success the Rebels’ baseball program has obtained in the past three decades. In 31 years, 16 of the baseball teams G.W. Long fielded have captured a state title in either Alabama High School Athletic Association’s Class 1A or Class 2A divisions.
But it’s more than just baseball around this small, unincorporated Dale County community.
Trophies mark three softball state titles – including the past two of them that Libby Baker, the nation’s best home run hitter ever, helped spearhead. Perusing yearbooks reveals several deep playoff runs for the football team, while the volleyball team finished in the top four in 2018.
Even track and field – in which the school doesn’t compete anymore – produced three runner-up finishes in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The school and Skipperville community hasn’t possessed that athletic prowess forever, though, according to G.W. Long High School counselor Ricky Herring – a 1976 Rebel graduate. He can recall a time that the famous Rebels baseball program didn’t have uniforms – or shoes, for that matter.
“In the early 70s, I went out there to a baseball game,” he said. “Some of them were barefooted. They were all wearing blue jeans and a football jersey and maybe a baseball cap. That was their uniform. That’s just how unimportant it was.”
So, what changed? A little success tumbled into a ton of victories and titles thanks to a variety of factors, said legendary former Rebels baseball coach Earl Miller, who won 10 state championships himself.
“Success breeds success,” he said. “I think all the sports intermingle with another, and we all help each other.”
While Herring belongs to what he calls “old Skipperville people,” he left the community for a bit to teach in southern Dale County schools. By the time he returned in the mid-1990s, the Rebels’ athletic program had completely changed and experienced wild success.
“There’s not an awful lot that goes on in Skipperville,” he said. “It’s not incorporated, and people are into sports. I assure you in the ‘60s and ‘70s and a big part of the ‘80s, it was not that way.”
Miller, who joined the community after Kevin Raley guided the first Rebels baseball championship team in 1989, noted that very support played an integral role in his 15-year career at G.W. Long.
“This school is the center of our community, and our community supports this school,” he said. “If you need help, all you’ve got to do is put it out there and you’ll get more than you need.”
That backing extends further than the community to school faculty, including teachers and administrators.
“You’ve got to have the support from the top all the way down. We’ve had some great superintendents, had some great principals and assistant principals that would work with you,” Miller said. “Then we got great teachers here. You go to any game – football, softball, volleyball – and you’ll have teachers in the stands supporting their students.”
Of course, athletic success takes kids committed to the Rebel cause.
“You have those boys that work hard and have a special talent, and they’re always a little better,” Miller said. “If you depend just on them, you’re not always going to win, so you have to have kids that will work hard. Basically what they do is they buy into the program, and that helps a lot.”
Same ingredients, different formula
Herring noticed another aspect about the Skipperville community had changed upon his return: the size and makeup of it.
“In ’74, (G.W. Long School) was (grades) 1 through 12, and it had 480 students,” he said. “Now the elementary school has almost that many, and we hover around 400.”
As the guidance counselor, Herring encounters every new student that enters G.W. Long High School. Throughout the years, the community has become less engrained with “old Skipperville people” and more with newcomers.
Herring notes athletics play a major role in that growth.
“I think the athletic program puts the school on the map even if they’re not particularly interested in athletics,” he said. “It makes the place famous enough to investigate the schools. In my time as a counselor, I know people have moved here, spent hundreds of thousands to live in this community because they’ve heard so many good things about the school and the athletic program.”
Miller and his son Drew, the current Rebels head baseball coach, note the newcomers have continued the tradition Skipperville has developed mainly because they possess many of the values the community cherishes.
“We’ve had a lot of development and people move to the area, but I think success kind of breeds success,” Drew Miller said. “It can be contagious. We have a group of hard-working, middle-class people, and they have passed (those aspects) down to the kids.”
Continuing the legacy
Success breeds success because it inspires others, and Skipperville’s small nature magnifies that. The elementary and high schools inhabit the same campus, providing a breeding ground for future development.
“When those elementary kids line up for the buses out here, a lot of times they’re looking over at the baseball field,” Earl Miller said. “They’re seeing the baseball team beginning practice, and there’s a lot of them saying, ‘I can’t wait until I’m over there.’ They kind of look up to them.”
And they no doubt understand the legacy of Rebels athletics. No class wants to be known as the one that halted the pattern of success.
After all, not only have the Rebels won 15 state baseball championships – they have done it without losing a championship series. That includes in 2017 and 2018 under Drew Miller.
“Our 2018 team lost 10 seniors. Seven of them were in the lineup, eight in the field,” Drew Miller said. “We had turnover all the way around … but they wanted to win for the school and play for the community.”