It has been nine seasons since Hattiesburg High last won a state championship in baseball, surprising a lot of people with a dramatic run to the school’s fifth title.
After that special season, Larry Knight’s last at HHS, the talent level dropped off considerably, and it is a testament to Joe Hartfield and his staff that the Tigers have remained fairly competitive in the state’s largest class over the past nine years.
Still, Hattiesburg hasn’t been a threat to win a championship over that period, but that may be changing.
The Tigers may be a year away from truly challenging for elite status among the state’s baseball powers, but one can clearly see that they’re headed in the right direction.
Wednesday’s 7-3 victory over Hancock improved Hattiesburg’s overall record to 14-9 and 7-5 in Region 7-6A.
And it could be better. Of the Tigers’ nine defeats, six have been by one run and a seventh was a 2-0 loss to Gulfport.
Pitching is key
The biggest key to Hattiesburg’s surge has been pitching. The Tigers have a team earned-run average of 2.50, which is phenomenal for high school pitching.
Hartfield can send out three starters with ERAs under 1.50, plus he has several other reliable arms he can turn to in a pinch.
Against Hancock, freshman Dexter Jordan overcame a shaky start to silence the Hawks and earn his fifth victory of the season. And he wasn’t even on the Tigers’ radar as a starter at the beginning of the season.
Probably the biggest improvement in the Tigers’ play over the course of this season has been on defense. Early in the year, it was shoddy defense that played a role in some of those one-run losses.
But with confidence has come a tighter defense, and now Hattiesburg is winning some of those one-run games. The Tigers are still not a great defensive team, but as long as they continue to improve, Hartfield will be happy.
And offensively, HHS really developed into a very sound team at the plate. The Tigers have always had speed, and Wednesday that speed just killed Hancock.
Hattiesburg laid down four spectacular bunts in the first inning that led directly to three runs, after the Hawks had taken a 2-0 lead in the top of the inning.
Wednesday’s win – their fourth straight – kept the Tigers firmly in the four-way race, not only for a playoff berth, but possibly the top spot in 7-6A.
Hattiesburg still has two region games remaining, the second game against Hancock (which has not been rescheduled) and a make-up game Monday against St. Martin.
Win both, and the Tigers will make the playoffs and could even get the first-round bye that region champions earn in Class 6A.
What’s amazing about all of this is that Hattiesburg has done it while continuing to be the vagabond team.
This is the third season in which the Tigers have had to play all of their games on the road, while Smokie Harrington Park is being rebuilt in the wake of the 2013 tornado that heavily damaged the historic structure.
Wednesday’s game was played at North Forrest High School, and over the past three years, HHS has played “home” games at Pete Taylor Park, William Carey University, Pearl River Community College and Jones County Junior College.
But next year, the Tigers will be back in Smokie, back in new digs that are being built adjacent to the ball park, and they figure to be a strong force in Class 5A, where they will play for at least the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
Hattiesburg has a solid contingent of seniors, notably catcher Joronnie Hinton, but the heart of this team is a group of gifted freshmen and sophomores who have already made an impact on the program.
Many of that group were part of the two-time Dixie Boys World Series champions, and while success in youth ball doesn’t always translate into success at the high school level, it does tell you that these kids have experience at winning in a championship setting.
So, these are exciting times for Hattiesburg High baseball, and the future looks even brighter.
Contact Stan Caldwell at (601) 584-3137, on Twitter at StanMan1717 and on e-mail at scaldwell@hattiesburg american.com.