Trey Lamar, an attorney in Senatobia and current member of the Mississippi House of Representatives, remembers his baseball playing days at Magnolia Heights just 14 short years ago.
“Our field was in a cow field and cows were so close to the dugout that we could just reach out the dugout and touch them,” recalled the 1999 Magnolia Heights grad. “The cows would be mooing during the game. A few years later they built one of the finer facilities and the program has taken off.”
Boy, has it.
Magnolia Heights has won four state titles since then, none more special than the one this year.
It’s been seven days since the Chiefs completed one of the best seasons in Mississippi high school baseball history.
As eighth-year head baseball coach Chris McMinn will quickly tell you… “It still hasn’t sunk in yet.”
Chances are, that’ll take a while.
Magnolia Heights finished 37-0 to claim its second straight Academy AAA, Division II championship. It was just the third perfect baseball season since many of the players on the team were born. New Hope did it in 1996 and Sumrall did it in 2009.
“These kids just kept believing,” said McMinn, who led the school to its third title in five seasons. “When we got back from our spring break trip to Dallas, they took it upon themselves to see how far they could go without losing and ended up finishing out the season.”
It’s helped put the Senatobia school on the national map. The Chiefs are currently ranked No. 8 nationally by MaxPreps. McMinn still remembers the day his team first cracked the national rankings weeks ago.
A student at the school ran up to practice and informed the team.
“Nobody believed him until we saw it,” said McMinn. “As we moved up, it became surreal. I feel like on any day, we can compete with anybody. We tried to make our schedule as tough as possible to make sure we were challenged so we would be prepared for the postseason.”
Earning every win
Jacob Billingsley, one of four seniors who has already signed to play in college next year, looked at that schedule before the season began.
“We picked out a couple games that we thought would be tough and we knew if we could get past those, we could do it,” said Billingsley, who is headed to Mississippi State. “We knew we had a group who could do it.”
The schedule wasn’t easy. MRA, which won the AAA, Division I title in 2012. Jackson Prep, which finished 34-2 and won the Division I title last week. The four games in Texas. St. Andrew’s, one of four teams left in the MHSAA’s Class 3A playoffs. And Southaven, pre-season No. 1 in The Clarion-Ledger’s MHSAA rankings and one of four teams left in the Class 6A playoffs.
Jackson Academy baseball coach Jay Powell saw his team lose to Magnolia Heights three times this season.
“They have had some good teams over the years, but I have never seen them have the dominant pitching like they had this year,” said Powell, the former West Lauderdale standout out who went on to play in the major leagues. “They were just so good defensively and on the mound. If you put them in any class or any division, they would go far.”
The Chiefs had a few close calls this season.
They trailed going into the seventh inning against Richardson (Texas) before winning in eight innings. Billingsley worked his way out of a bases loaded, no-out jam in the sixth to help preserve a win against Southaven. And there was a 7-3 deficit in the fourth inning against Briarcrest (Tenn.).
“All of our parents were raising cane in the stands because of the umpiring,” Billingsley recalled. “I looked up at my mom and said ‘we got this’ and we came back and beat them by a run.”
Dating back to last season, the Chiefs have won 41 in a row. It’s the fourth longest streak in Mississippi history. The state’s longest winning streak is 67 by Sumrall (2008-10 seasons).
If the Chiefs are to threaten that, they’ll have to do so without players like IF/P Billingsley (headed to Mississippi State); shortstop Dalton Skelton (Delta State); Kevin Barber (Holmes CC) and Luke Latham (Northwest CC). Colin Liles (P/3B) and Jackson Pitts (P/1B) are also expected to play in college.
The cupboard is far from bare though. Riley Self, a freshman who plays a little of everywhere, has already committed to Mississippi State. Freshman catcher Dustin Skelton is already drawing plenty of Division I interest as well. Second baseman Jamell Newsome also returns as well as sophomore David Herrington and junior Kirkland Sandridge.
“In most games, we played 17 or 18 players and just had a lot of players to contribute,” said McMinn.
Band of brothers
And it was a close knit group.
“Every team says they are like brothers, but we really were,” said Billingsley.
McMin saw that closeness late in the season when freshman Trey Morrison’s mother was seriously injured in a fire.
“The guys were constantly calling him and texting him and checking on him,” McMinn said. “That put high school sports in perspective and reminded us that it’s more about the kids and their relationships as opposed to just winning.”
But the winning didn’t stop for the team that adopted the motto “Rise to the Occasion” during the season.
They rose to the occasion 37 times this year.
It still feels like a dream to the players as well.
“There’s no way a team plays close to 40 games and doesn’t lose,” said Billingsley. “It hasn’t set in yet, but it will.”
And once it does sink in, Billingsley knows just how long the memories of the 2013 season will last.
“Aw man, forever,” he said.