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By RUSSELL TURNER
A strong push over the past few weeks by the Greene County High School baseball team helped the Wildcats fight their way into the MHSAA playoffs for the third straight season.
That is a big accomplishment in its own right, considering the quality of teams in Region 7-4A. But, after getting ousted from the postseason in the opening round both last year and the year before, Coach Nick Chatham and his team wanted more in 2019. On Monday, they reached that goal, defeating homestanding East Central by a 4-1 margin in the deciding game of the best-of-three series. The win pushed GCHS into a second round matchup with Florence later this week and continued the steady improvement the program has been experiencing under Chatham.
“It is a great win for our program and I am just so proud of the way this team competed,” Chatham said. “We felt like getting past the first round was important for us and we had some guys step up and really play well to help us do that.”
“But, we aren’t going to be content. This team wants more and we feel good about our chances in the second round. Our team confidence is great. Our defense is playing well and while we weren’t as hot at the plate in this series as we had been the last few weeks, we are doing enough offensively to give ourselves a chance.”
Getting past East Central was no easy task. The Cats dropped the opener at Hurley on Friday, but was able to force a deciding game three with a win at home on Saturday, thanks in large part to a complete-game performance by junior ace Drake Henderson. But, Henderson was ineligible to pitch again on Monday and Friday’s starter, freshman Conner West, would only be available on a limited basis. So, Chatham turned to junior lefty Malachi Graham, and the decision made him look like a genius.
“Talk about stepping up under pressure,” Chatham said of Graham’s performance at Hurley. “He has thrown a lot for us this year, but had not started any of the big region matchups. I just felt like Malachi would go out and throw strikes, and that with him on the mound, we would have our best defensive lineup behind him in the field.”
“We put the biggest game of the year in his hands and he rose to the occasion.”
Graham got into trouble after a few hard-hit balls by the Hornets in the first inning. But, he got out of that opening frame with just one run allowed and kept the home team scoreless into the seventh inning. He got into a few jams along the way, scattering seven hits through six innings of work, but always managed to come up with a big pitch when he needed it most.
Graham left the game in the seventh inning with a 4-1 lead and turned it over to West who trotted out of the bullpen with no outs, runners on first and second, and the heart of the Hornet lineup waiting. All West was able to do was retire the first three batters he faced, striking out two and stranding the Hornets’ baserunners to earn the save.
“I am really proud of the way our pitchers competed,” Chatham said. “We pulled Conner on Friday (before his pitch count got too high) so we could have him available for game three. That was a pressure scenario to put him in, but he was the guy we wanted on the mound in that situation, and he didn’t flinch.”
“Drake coming out on Saturday to pitch the way he did to get us to game three was huge and we felt like we would be in good shape with Malachi and Conner.’
It turns out the Cats were in good shape. After falling behind in the first inning, GCHS battled back to take a 3-1 lead in the third. A walk, an error and a single by senior Kenneth Moore loaded the bases with one out. Henderson blistered a single back up the middle to drive in the first run. That was followed by back-to-back bases loaded walks by seniors Noah Mitchell and Walker Byrd.
The Cats loaded the bases again in the seventh inning and added an insurance run when Dalton Jenkins was hit by a pitch. Meanwhile, Graham kept filling up the strike zone while dealing a steady dose of curve balls to the Hornet hitters.
“I thought it was a well-played series, overall,” Chatham added. “Our defense was solid in all three games. In the first game, they got the timely hits, but in the final two games, it was our guys that came up with big at-bats in key situations. We were very patient at the plate, particularly when they struggled to throw strikes.”
“I am just very impressed with our ability to handle the pressure. But, I talk to our guys all the time about baseball being a game of ups and downs and I think they did a great job of staying level headed.”
Henderson, Mitchell, Byrd and Jenkins each had an RBI for the Wildcats. Henderson and junior Dylan Miller each had two hits, while Byrd reached base four times, drawing one walk and being hit by a pitch three times.
GCHS drops 6-2 decision to open series
A home run by senior Avery White wasn’t all the offense East Central got on Friday, but it was all that was needed, as the Hornets used White’s 3-run blast to take control of a tight game at home on Friday en route to a 6-2 series-opening win.
Greene County tied the game at 1-1 in the top half of the third inning off a RBI single by Dylan Miller. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, White connected on a pitch from Conner West in the bottom half of the frame to give East Central a 4-1 lead. The Hornets added two more insurance runs in the bottom of the sixth inning. The Wildcats’ only other score came in the top of the fourth on a safety squeeze from Walker Byrd that scored Drake Henderson.
Miller and Henderson led GCHS with two hits each, while Henderson and Byrd accounted for the only RBIs. Peyton Roberts singled in the top of the third for his only hit and later scored on Miller’s single.
West took the loss for the Wildcats, but gave GCHS five solid innings on the mound. He scattered seven hits, struck out three and walked none, before turning the game over to junior Malachi Graham in the bottom of the sixth. Meanwhile, Branson Davis kept GCHS in check. He scattered six hits and struck out eight Wildcats, compared to three walks.
Cats force Game 3 with solid 7-2 win at home
The Wildcats put up five runs in the bottom half of the second inning Saturday at Scott Bray Field, which is all the offensive help junior Drake Henderson would need.
Henderson tossed a complete game, striking out 10 batters along the way. He scattered five hits over seven innings, walked two and hit two. He also had a hit and a RBI in the 7-2 win.
A single by senior Walker Byrd and a 10-pitch walk by Dalton Jenkins got things started for the Cats in the bottom of the second. Kade Kittrell put down a nice bunt to push Byrd across for the first run and Roberts followed with a fielder’s choice RBI.
A single by Henderson scored Roberts before a 2-out error allowed Miller and Kenneth Moore to score, putting GCHS ahead 5-0 early in the game.
East Central made things interesting with runs in the third and fourth innings, but the Wildcats retook control with a pair of runs in their half of the fourth. Walker Byrd’s single drove in Brantley Smith and Moore to push the lead to 7-2 and Henderson took it from there, retiring the Hornets in order over the final three frames to seal the win. Byrd led GCHS offensively with two hits and two RBIs on the game.
Florence riding high entering series
It would be hard to find a team that’s had more success than Florence this season.
Coach Josh Anderson’s Eagles enter the matchup with a 25-1 record, including 13 shutout wins. Their only loss was a 4-3 decision they dropped to West Jones in tournament action early in March. Since then they have won 18 straight, sweeping through Region 6-4A with a spotless 15-0 record and advancing to Round Two with two dominating wins over Newton County (13-0 and 11-0).
They averaged 12 runs per game this season, while allowing only 52 runs in 26 games. Individually, Florence has five starters hitting above a .400 average on the season and nine players with double digit RBIs.
“Clearly, they have a solid team,” Chatham said. “You don’t post the record they have without having a strong club.”
“But, I think we are ready to play and I feel good about our chances. Our team is battle tested and we are playing with a lot of confidence.”
Leading the way for the Eagles are seniors Walker Ladner and Ashten Cooley, and sophomore Cole Smith. Ladner (#23) leads the team offensively with a .557 batting average, 55 RBIs and 31 runs scored. He leads the team with 22 extra-base hits, including seven home runs. He is also a leader on the mound, posting a 6-1 record with a 0.32 earned run average. He has struck out 83 batters in 43 1/3 innings of work, while walking 25.
Smith (#5) is 7-0 on the mound with a 1.22 ERA. He leads the team with 46 innings pitches and has fanned 48 batters, compared to 16 walks. At the plate, Smith is hitting at a .422 clip with 27 RBIs and 25 runs scored.
Cooley (#30) brings a .432 batting average to the series with 30 RBIs. He leads the team with 10 doubles on the season and is 4-0 as a pitcher with 23 innings under his belt. He has posted a 1.83 ERA with 32 strikeouts and 12 walks.
The series is set to get underway on Thursday at 7 p.m. in Florence, with game two set for Friday at 7 p.m. in Leakesville. Game three, if needed, is set to be back in Florence on Saturday. However, inclement weather expected in the area on Thursday could force changes to that schedule.
“We had great support from Wildcat fans throughout this series and that means a great deal to these players,” Chatham said. “I hope we can have that type of support again this week.”
“We are looking forward to the challenge. Like I said, I feel like our team is battle tested and our guys are ready to play.”
Fans making the trip can take U.S. 49 from Hattiesburg to Florence and turn right onto the intersection with Hwy. 469 / East Main Street. The school is located a short distance from U.S. 49 at 232 Hwy 469 N, Florence, MS 39073. The baseball field is located behind the school off Williams Road.
Chatham has set game two at home as Little League Night at Scott Bray Field. While MHSAA rules prevent GCHS from providing free or discounted admission, Chatham says any youth player that wears his or her uniform to the Cats’ home game will get a free hot dog from the concessions stand and have the chance to join the Wildcats on the field for the National Anthem.