It has never been any secret that the rivalry between Oak Grove and Petal high schools is awfully intense.
The two schools are hotly competitive in everything — football, basketball, academics, band — you name it, and the Warriors and Panthers butt heads over it relentlessly.
But it is in baseball that the rivalry has reached its highest level of intensity.
The reason is simple. The Panthers and Warriors have won big on the baseball diamond for decades, producing 18 state championships between the two schools.
Year-in and year-out, Petal and Oak Grove are among the handful of baseball teams in Mississippi that always expect to compete for state titles. And, of course, the fact that it’s a crosstown clash makes it even bigger.
“It’s the epitome of high school rivalries,” said Mitch Brent, a longtime Oak Grove fan.
“We don’t like them; they don’t like us, and it’s always a great game, no matter who’s up that year or who’s down that year. You throw out the records.”
As it happens, this season the two teams come into their two-game Region 5-6A series this week dead even. Both teams are 11-5 overall and 3-1 in region play, and both teams are ranked among the top teams in the state.
“It’s an exciting rivalry,” said veteran Petal coach Larry Watkins. “Both teams get after each other and it’s always a tough battle.
“The fact that both teams have been successful and they’re so close. Both schools have great support, and the communities get really involved. It’s always your biggest game of the season, (especially) in terms of crowds.”
The first meeting of the season between the Warriors and Panthers is at 7 p.m. tonight at Panther Field on the Petal High campus. The return game is at 7 p.m. Thursday at Oak Grove. The third regular-season game is scheduled for April 14 at Petal.
Although their records are identical, Petal and Oak Grove have come to this week from different directions. The Warriors have lost four of their last five games, while the Panthers have won four straight and five of their last six.
“It’s makes for a good atmosphere,” said Oak Grove coach Chris McCardle, who is now in his sixth season as the coach of the Warriors. “We always look forward to that series every year, and it will be a good one.”
By most accounts, the intensity level of the Petal-Oak Grove rivalry began to climb in the 1980s, when the two schools began establishing themselves among the state’s elite baseball programs.
“I would say it’s a rivalry that’s second to none,” said former longtime Oak Grove coach Harry Breland, who started the Warriors’ program in 1970 and built it into a powerhouse.
“I don’t know of any other rivalry that is so competitive, and it’s not just about baseball, but it’s about everything. Some people see it as bringing out the worst in the fans and in the teams, but I look at it as bringing out the best in them. Both schools seem to feed off each other and they make each other better.”
Make no mistake, though, the fans do get into it, maybe far more than the players or coaches.
“I think all the kids know each other pretty well, play summer ball together,” McCardle said. “But the fans are definitely one-sided. Their fans don’t like us; ours don’t like them.”
Some folks, though, find themselves caught in the middle between being a fan and dealing with real life.
“No doubt. Sports is for fun; business is business,” said James Warren, a Petal resident and Panther fan who owns Eagle Tire and Service, a Goodyear franchise located in Lamar County on West Hardy Street.
“But we do enjoy playing each other. I think we have a good relationship.”
Although the two teams are scheduled to play three times this season, no one will be shocked if the Panthers and Warriors find themselves playing each other again in the Class 6A South State championship series in May.
The last time that happened was in 2010, and it remains one of Watkins’ most cherished memories of the rivalry in his 35 seasons at the Petal helm. That year, the Panthers beat the Warriors 7-1 in the third and deciding game of the series and went on to win the 6A state title.
“There have been so many great games over the years, they all start to run together,” Watkins said. “But If I had to pick one that would probably be it.”
If you go
Warriors vs. Panthers baseball
•7 p.m. tonight at Panther Field at Petal High
•7 p.m. Thursday at Oak Grove High
•A third regular-season game is scheduled for April 14 at Petal