PEARL – Joseph McLaurin said Sumrall coach Larry Knight, “got onto me pretty good,” after the senior left-hander walked the first batters he faced Saturday.
Knight’s admonition worked to perfection.
McLaurin got out of the bases-loaded jam in the first inning and cruised the rest of the way, carrying the Bobcats to a 7-2 victory over Belmont in the third and decisive game in the Class 3A State Championship series at Trustmark Park.
Sumrall (33-5) won its fifth state title – but the first since 2011 – while Belmont (26-6) lost in its first trip to the state finals.
“He’s got the stuff to do what he did today,” said Knight. “At times, he’s had a hard time throwing strikes. Today, he battled through that first inning, with the bases loaded, and once he got through that, he settled in, and he had the drive and determination.
“He did a great job, and we had to have that from him.”
Knight said he didn’t mince words with his first-inning visit, and he already had Landon White warming up in the bullpen.
“I told him before the game that we couldn’t afford for him to throw a lot of balls and that I would have a quick hook,” Knight said. “I went out there and told him, ‘This is the time. You can either step up now or I’m taking you out.’ And he stepped up.”
McLaurin (5-2) pitched six-plus innings, struck out 13 and allowed just two hits to handcuff the Cardinals. Trace Jordan drove in four runs with a double and three singles, as the Bobcats delivered at the plate.
Jordan, who came into the series batting .451, was held hitless in the series opener, which the Bobcats lost 5-2. But in the final two games, he was 6 for 7 with six RBIs.
“Coming into this series, I went 0 for 7 at South State, then when I went hitless in the first game, I kind of got frustrated.” Jordan said. “At practice (on Thursday), I went back and worked on some things.”
McLaurin spotted Belmont an unearned run in the second inning, when Chad Stephens was hit by a pitch and scored on an error with two outs.
“I had a little bit of nerves those first few innings,” McLaurin said. “But I started to get a feel for my fastball and breaking ball, and that’s when it started to click.”
Sumrall immediately responded with two runs on a single by Alex Knight in the top of the third, and never looked back.
A big key for Sumrall was the ability to move runners over and set the table for Jordan. Twice in key situations, in the third and in the sixth, Drake Nightengale, batting in the No. 2 spot ahead of Jordan, laid down successful sacrifice bunts to move runners into scoring position.
“That was huge for us,” said Nightengale. “That got guys in scoring position for us. Coach always teaches us the fundamentals of the game, and that includes making the bunts when we need to.”
The Bobcats added another run in the fourth on the first of Jordan’s RBIs, a single with two out, then broke the game open with a pair of runs in the sixth and two more in the seventh.
Jordan’s double to the wall in right-centerfield drove in both runs in the sixth.
Luke Alexander (3-1) started for Belmont, but he struggled with his control. And, unlike McLaurin, he was unable to get off the hook.
“He hasn’t pitched a lot this year,” said Belmont coach Andy Deaton. “We’ve kept him mostly at short, but we brought him (to pitch). We were just rolling the dice out there. He’s one of our best and we were going to try to ride him on in, but it didn’t work out.”
McLaurin ran into trouble in the bottom of the seventh, walking the first batters, but Game 2 winner Drake Nightengale came in and immediately got a double play.
Alexander singled to drive in a run for the Cardinals, but Nightengale got a groundout to set off the celebration among the Bobcats and their faithful fans.
“I’m just lost for words,” said White. “It means so much. To come back here two years in a row and fail, then to come back that third year and get the job done. It’s just fantastic.
“After that first game, the next night, we had a meeting. And we said, ‘Look, we’re one of the best teams in the state, and we played like crap. We’ve just got to get that behind us and play our game, just relax and have fun.’ And that’s what we did.”