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For the second straight week, GCHS rebounds to win series after loss in game one
By RUSSELL TURNER
GCHS head coach Nick Chatham carried a lot of confidence into his team’s round two playoff matchup with highly-touted Florence this past week.
Prior to heading up US 49 on Friday, Chatham said he felt his team had a great chance against the Eagles because the Cats were “battle-tested” and “had bounced back from adversity” during a regular season filled with quality opponents. Based on the Wildcats’ second straight come-from-behind series win, and particularly how they fought back against Florence, it is pretty safe to say Chatham has a good feel for his team.
The Wildcats suffered a humbling 18-3 loss in game one at Florence on Friday in a game where very little went right. The Eagles looked dominant and very worthy of their 26-1 record. Many among the Wildcat faithful probably didn’t have much hope the Cats could rebound. That wasn’t a problem in the Wildcat dugout. GCHS players picked up the pieces, talked with their coaches and teammates about what they learned about their opponent and turned their focus to game two.
“Our guys just continue to battle and compete hard and that’s just who we are,” Chatham said. “That’s been true of this team all year.”
“Even in a bad loss like the one on Friday, we learned a lot and our guys came back out in game two and game three and executed and made plays.”
The plan worked yet again. After getting a season-best performance from junior pitcher Drake Henderson in a 3-1 win on Saturday, the Cats loaded back up on the bus Monday afternoon for a return trip to Florence and a winner-take-all game three showdown. While it wasn’t their best performance of the year, particularly on defense, it was one of their grittiest, and the end result was a 13-7 win and a punched ticket for the third round.
“I told the guys prior to the game that the scouting report on us is that we just keep coming at you,” Chatham said. “I asked them to play that way tonight and they did.”
“I am very proud of the way we competed and battled tonight. We didn’t play very well defensively, but we kept playing hard and overcame those mistakes.”
GCHS took the lead in the first inning after two walks and two singles. Dylan Miller scored the opening run on a single by Garrett West, but senior Kenneth Moore was thrown out at the plate, putting a damper on what looked be the start of a big inning.
Florence replied with two runs of their own in the bottom of the first, taking advantage of three errors and a passed ball by the GCHS defense.
A bloop single, a walk and a base hit bunt loaded the bases for the Cats to start the second inning. Miller drove in Walker Byrd to tie the game and leave the bases loaded for Moore, who made sure there would be no play at the plate the second time around, turning on a 3-1 fastball for a thundering, line-drive grand slam.
GCHS maintained the 6-2 lead into the bottom of the third, when a walk and another Wildcat error helped Florence post a 3-run inning and close the gap to 6-5. They tied the game in their half of the fourth, taking advantage of yet another defensive mishap by the Wildcats.
Greene County starter Malachi Graham’s night ended with a hit batsmen in the same inning and Chatham called on freshman Braden Brewer to get his team out of the jam. Brewer gave up a single to the first hitter he faced, but then got the next batter to ground into a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning.
“That was a big spot,” Chatham said. “Malachi had done his job for us and we turned the game over to a freshman who had one inning of varsity experience to his credit and that was at the end of game one.”
“I knew he was ready for the big moment because he had shown us on Friday that he could throw his curveball for strikes and kept them off balance. He did a great job.”
GCHS manufactured a run to retake the lead in the top of the sixth on a sacrifice bunt that scored senior Dalton Jenkins. However, a leadoff homer by Braydon Muse tied the game at 7-7.
A hit batsmen ended Brewer’s night on the mound and Chatham turned things over to yet another freshman, Conner West, with one out and a runner on base. West walked the first batter he faced, but he struck out the next hitter and got a ground ball from the next to end the inning and the threat.
GCHS got rolling in the seventh with back-to-back singles by Moore and Henderson. A sacrifice bunt by Garrett West pushed the runners into scoring position and an intentional walk of senior Noah Mitchell loaded the bases. Walker Byrd drew a bases-loaded walk for what would be the winning run. An error and a hit by Kade Kitrell pushed the lead to three and Miller followed with a 2-run single to give GCHS a 12-7 lead. They added another run when Kittrell scored on a passed ball.
West retook the mound with a 6-run lead and retired the side in order and earned the win on a strikeout to end the game.
“I told Conner coming out of the game on Friday to get your head up and get ready, because we are going to need you to come up big in game three,” Chatham said. “And, that is exactly what he did.”
“Malachi, Brayden and Conner showed a lot of toughness for us.”
Chatham made it a point on Tuesday to talk about his team’s character. He said he had a great feeling on Monday when the team stopped for their pregame meal and one of the younger players, who didn’t play in the game, took a moment to help out a homeless man he saw outside the restaurant.
“We get a lot of compliments about our kids and how they act,” Chatham said. “Our kids do things the right way off the field and I truly believe that is one of the big reasons they are having success on the field.”
Cats blown out in game one
Florence looked as good as advertised on Friday, pounding out 14 hits and forcing GCHS into five defensive errors en route to an 18-3 win. GCHS took an early 1-0 lead and went into the bottom of the second tied at 2-2, but then the wheels came off.
The Eagles scored nine in the second, two in the third and five more to close things out in fourth. Meanwhile, Greene County managed just two hits (one each for Henderson and Moore) in the 5-inning loss. West took the loss on the mound.
Henderson wins pitchers’ duel in game two
Junior Drake Henderson has had many strong outings this season, but Saturday’s 10-strikeout gem was without a doubt his biggest. Henderson was dominant in the complete-game win, allowing just three hits and zero earned runs.
The Wildcats continued to struggle at the plate and managed just three hits of their own. But, they caught a break in the sixth inning and made it count. Moore drew a 1-out walk and stole a base to get into scoring position. Garrett West swung through strike three in what should have ended the inning, but the first baseman dropped the throw from the catcher, allowing Moore to score from second. Noah Mitchell followed that with a towering home run to push the lead to 3-0 going into the final frame.
A walk and a passed ball on the next to last pitch broke up the shutout, but Henderson struck out two of the final three batters he faced to claim the win and force game three.
West Lauderdale up next for Cats
Out of the frying pan and into the fire. That is a pretty good analogy for the Wildcat baseball team, which after beating one of the hottest teams in the state to advance, now get the challenge of trying to do the same against one of the hottest teams in the state over the past three decades.
Greene County fans are very familiar with the Knights, after some classic battles in baseball and football over the years. Longtime fans will remember many of the games played against legendary coach Jerry Boatner, who in 50 years of coaching high school baseball won 1,202 games and 14 state championships. But, Boatner is gone, choosing to ride off into retirement last year after 45 seasons in Collinsville. He turned the program over to Jason Smith and Jody Hurst and so far things are working pretty well for the Knights as they are 25-3 on the year and coming off a dominating sweep of Poplarville in the second round.
“This is a typical West Lauderdale team,” Chatham said. “Very talented and well coached. They have just continued a 30-year legacy of big time winning.”
“We know the challenge ahead and are excited about it. We are the underdogs, but I am used to that and to be quite honest enjoy the underdog role. Our guys have nothing to lose at this point, so we can just come out and play the game the same way we have during the first two rounds.”
The Knights swept through Region 5-4A without a loss and made it to the third round with sweeps of McComb and the Hornets from Poplarville. Their only losses on the season came by the middle of March, falling to Starkville (4-3), Harrison Central (7-1) and Mobile Christian (13-3) before getting into region play.
The Knights are led by a pitching staff with three guys with 23 combined wins, no losses and ERAs that begin with zeros. Future USM Golden Eagle Ben Ethridge (Sr., #24) is 10-0 on the season and is coming off a 14 strikeout performance in game one of the Poplarville series. Their number two guy, Mason Willis (#33, Soph.) is 7-0 on the year with a 0.477 ERA, while the third man in the rotation, Kameron Partridge (#2, Sr.) is 6-0 with a save and a 0.634 ERA.
Offensively, the Knights have averaged eight runs per game with junior Braden Luke (#22, Jr.) and Ethridge leading the way. Luke leads the team with a 5.24 batting average and 32 RBIs. He has 18 extra base hits and a team high five home runs. Ethridge is hitting at a .430 clip with 31 RBIs. Senior Austin Davidson (#1) leads the team with 44 hits, 38 runs scored and 22 stolen bases (out of 25 attempts). Willis and Partridge factoring in pretty heavily at the plate as well.
“There pitching is dominant,” Chatham said. “They have 3-4 arms that would be the ace on most teams.”
“But, our approach will not change. We have played and taken out Goliaths all year. We beat Sumrall and beat a 26-win Florence team. We just have to continue to be who we are.”
The series is set to kick off Thursday in Collinsville, with game two scheduled for Friday at Scott Bray Field. Game three is on the schedule for Saturday, but weather conditions could come into play and force a change in plans. All three games are set for first pitches at 7 p.m.