Tradition-rich Oak Grove the ‘underdog’ this week?
Oak Grove is used to competing for state baseball championships.
But being the underdog in one? That’s new territory.
Still, that’s the position the Warriors face entering today’s Class 6A championship series against DeSoto Central, which boasts seven Division-I recruits. Game 1 of the three-game series is set for 7 p.m. at Trustmark Park
“State championships are not supposed to be easy,” said Oak Grove coach Chris McCardle, who guided the Warriors to their 10th state title in 2012. “It’s actually one of the only times I can remember Oak Grove being an underdog — not for anything I’ve done, just the nature of its tradition.”
Oak Grove’s starting lineup was littered with injuries early this year. Its best player — Dandy Dozen ace pitcher Kirk McCarty, a USM signee — didn’t make his first appearance until late March after breaking his right fibula quarterbacking in the Bernard Blackwell All-Star Classic in December.
But he’s back now, and so are the Warriors.
They managed to win Region 5-6A despite being in third with two weeks remaining — and enter today’s bout having won their last 13 games.
And facing a team steeped with high-level talent, including Dandy Dozen outfielder Clay Casey and perhaps the state’s top overall prospect in junior Austin Riley, won’t be made any easier by the fact the Jaguars had to win four elimination games during the playoffs (two against Hernando and Northwest Rankin) just to have a shot at their first state title.
“Our guys realize that if they lose again, there is no more,” DeSoto Central coach Mark Monaghan said. “We trailed in every one of the Northwest Rankin games, and were able to come back. It lets us know we can play from behind if we have to.”
Deja Vu in Class 3A?
Sumrall coach Larry Knight stepped to the podium during Monday’s MHSAA press conference, talked about the opportunity to play for another championship, then quipped:
“Our guys were very excited about playing, but once we found out (it was against Kossuth), we got a little worried.
“They whipped us last year.”
It’s the second straight year the two schools will face off for a Class 3A championship. Last season, Kossuth won consecutive games to capture its first baseball title in school history. The Aggies didn’t miss a beat this season after a coaching transition brought Trave Hopkins in to replace Daniel Threadgill.
“It’s a big deal. Our guys have been there,” said Hopkins, whose Aggies are making their third straight trip to the state finals. “They know what it feels like to win. They’re hungry for some more.”
The Bobcats and Aggies (21-11) play similar styles of baseball. Neither are expected to overpower a team with their pitching — though Kossuth ace Tyler Mercer and Sumrall’s Nick Clark and Alex Knight are effective throwers — but they each have deep rotations that both Larry Knight and Hopkins feel comfortable with in pressure situations.
“We’re a much better team this year than last,” said Knight, the successful former Hattiesburg High coach who led Sumrall (25-7) to four straight baseball titles from 2008-11.
Purvis scary good down the stretch
West Lauderdale coach Jerry Boatner made a proclamation on Monday.
“We’re scared of (Purvis),” said Boatner, drawing laughs from the crowd at the MHSAA press conference.
After 46 years of coaching, there’s not much left in the baseball world that would really scare Boatner, who became the state’s all-time winningest coach earlier this season. He’s seen a lot.
But even with a team stocked with Division I talent — six of his seven seniors have signed scholarships, including Dandy Dozens Blake Anderson (USM, catcher) and Will Stokes (Ole Miss, pitcher) — it’s understandable why the Tornadoes have more than just his attention heading into Game 1 of the Class 4A championship series on Thursday.
Purvis has been among the hottest teams in the state the last three weeks, winning 12 of its last 13 games, including eight straight in the postseason.
That included last week’s sweep of No. 11 Columbia, which was among the favorites in the South entering the season. Senior Brady Anderson and junior Will Curtis have played a big part in that, combining for 40 doubles this season, as has ace Jacob Williams, whose nine wins and 1.34 ERA have created plenty of momentum.
Even so, that won’t stop the Knights (31-2) from being favored this week.
Scrappy West Jones awaits New Hope
New Hope coach Lee Boyd said he sees a version of his 2013 state championship squad in this year’s other Class 5A finalist — West Jones.
“We got hot at the right time last year,” Boyd said.
The fourth-ranked Trojans have been staples in the C-L’s MHSAA rankings this year and should be favored against the Mustangs when the best-of-three series begins on Thursday (7 p.m.).
Dandy Dozen member and Ole Miss signee Will Golsan followed his stellar junior season by hitting .407 this year, and Mississippi State signee Taylor Stafford (0.84 ERA) leads a dominant pitching rotation — along with Josh Stillman (1.04) and JC Redden (1.88) — for the Trojans that is a combined 23-1 this season. Even so, West Jones proved it can hang with some of the state’s top talent when it knocked off USM signee Justin Steele and George County in the second round.
The Mustangs (24-10) have far fewer players projecting to the Division I level, but they’re a scrappy bunch who won four extra-inning games in the postseason. They made the state finals despite finishing third in Region 5-5A, and had to win a play-in series in the first round just to have a shot.
Taylorsville in familiar place
Taylorsville’s Dusty Hillman says there’s not much difference in this year’s Tartar squad and the one that won a Class 2A title a year ago.
“Our kids kind of handled (the pressure) like we did last year,” Hillman said. “They took it in stride and ran with it knowing that everyone’s going to be coming after us.”
The Tartars (25-7) are making their fourth straight trip to the state finals and will try for their third championship in four years when they face Eupora, starting with Game 1 of the three-game series at 1 p.m. today.
Seniors Brody Bray (.453 avg., 6 2Bs, 29 RBIs) and Matthew Craft (.434, 11, 35) have been the catalysts for an explosive offense, and Jordan Hayes (9-1, 0.24 ERA) has been nearly unhittable on the mound this year.
Their experience on the big stage will be utilized against a Eupora squad (17-10) that has zero seniors, finished third in Region 2-2A but found a groove down the stretch by winning 10 of its last 11.
Contact Chris Thomas at (601) 961-7366 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @ChrisThomasTCL on Twitter.
At Trustmark Park, Pearl
Best-of-3 seriesGame 1
1A — Smithville vs. Cathedral, 10 a.m.
2A — Eupora vs. Taylorsville, 1 p.m.
3A — Kossuth vs. Sumrall, 4 p.m.
6A — DeSoto Central vs. Oak Grove, 7 p.m.