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By RUSSELL TURNER
Greene County’s run through the state 4A baseball playoffs came to an end Friday night at Scott Bray Field after a loss to one of the winningest programs in Mississippi history.
But, the Wildcats certainly didn’t make it easy on their rivals from West Lauderdale, pushing the Knights to extra innings in game one and keeping game two close until defensive errors took their toll. It was a tough ending for GCHS, which had made a strong late-season run and surprised some onlookers with their success in the first two rounds.
“It was a good year and I hated to see it end,” said GCHS Head Coach Nick Chatham, who wasn’t among those who considered his team this year’s Cinderella story. “I expected us to be in this spot.”
“Our guys played through a lot of adversity this year and in this series, but they just kept battling and playing hard. The stage was never too big for the players on this team. I am very proud of them.”
After coming from behind in rounds one and two to win the best-of-three series against East Central and Florence, Chatham changed his strategy a bit and called on his ace, junior Drake Henderson, to pitch game one in Collinsville.
Henderson responded by pulling out one of his best performances of the season, stifling a talented West Lauderdale lineup for seven and a third innings. Henderson scattered four hits and struck out four in one of the toughest environments in Mississippi high school baseball.
Unfortunately for Chatham, he had to watch most of Henderson’s performance from behind the fence in the outfield, after being ejected in the early innings on a controversial decision by the home plate umpire. Chatham said he disagreed with a call by the umpire and expressed his opinion. He was headed back to the third base box when he turned to say something to his batter and the umpire apparently thought the comments were directed at him.
“I hate that it happened,” Chatham said. “Getting tossed in that situation put our players and coaches in a tough spot, but I was proud of the way they responded.”
At that point, the teams were tied at 1-1. West Lauderdale took the lead in the bottom of the fifth, but couldn’t put GCHS away. The Cats kept fighting and tied the game with a solo home run by Walker Byrd on the first pitch of the seventh inning.
“It was his first homer of the year, but it wasn’t surprising to me,” Chatham said. “He has been having good at-bats all season.”
GCHS kept the score knotted at 2-2 into the eighth inning. But, Henderson’s pitch count was up to 120 for the night, and after he walked a batter with one out in the bottom of the eighth, it was time to go to the bullpen. Freshman Conner West got the next hitter to pop out to him on the mound, but Kameron Partridge managed to get a ground ball just past the GCHS infield for the walk-off winner.
Game two was a little different. Junior Malachi Graham pitched a solid six innings for the Wildcats, but four defensive errors were too much to overcome. The Knights strung together a few hits to go along with a couple crucial errors by the Cats and put up five runs in the top of the third. GCHS managed to get one of those runs back in the bottom of the third on an RBI single by senior Kenneth Moore, but it was not enough. West Lauderdale added two insurance runs in the top of the seven and went on to win 7-1.
“We outplayed them at their place, but couldn’t get the win,” Chatham said. “And, we had a tight game going at home until a few errors let it get away.”
GCHS finished the season with a 16-16 overall record and 4-4 in the playoffs. Chatham will lose six seniors to graduation, but is looking forward to next season.
“This has been a very good year, but the best thing about it was that our kids got to experience that environment,” Chatham said. “Our guys are no longer content with making the playoffs. We expect to compete for a region title and to make a strong run in the postseason.”
“We’re looking forward to next year. We have a lot of quality players coming back, including our top three arms (in terms of innings) returning to the pitching rotation.”