March 29, 2013 10:07:08 AM
Scott Walters - firstname.lastname@example.org
When schedules are finalized, many prep baseball coaches circle prom night and approach that night with fear and anxiety.
Columbus High School coach Jeff Cook isn't in that group.
Cook likes the Falcons' current winning streak on prom night. Columbus made it three straight on the special occasion with a 7-3 come-from-behind victory against Class 6A, Region 2 rival South Panola on Thursday night at Sammy Fletcher Field.
"To our kids' credit, everybody was focused," Cook said. "I really don't think I heard prom mentioned one time in the dugout. I think playing early in the day really helped. It allowed the kids to come out here, take care of business, and move on to the night. This was a really big win for us in so many ways."
Columbus improved to 12-3 and 3-1 in region play. With the victory, the Falcons secured the tiebreaker against the Tigers in the playoff race. Columbus won the first of this season's three meetings between the rivals, 13-2 Tuesday night in Batesville.
"(South Panola) really came out and competed," Columbus senior pitcher Christian Dale said. "We didn't do that at the beginning. But we didn't get down. We just kept working at it. Things really picked up there in the end."
Things picked up in the sixth inning when Columbus erased a 3-2 deficit by scoring five times. Michael Sturdivant laced a game-tying single to center field on a 3-2 count. Gavonta Webb followed with a bunt down the third-base line. Jimmy Cockrell was hit by a pitch, and Dale drew a bases-loaded walk to force in the go-ahead run. Chris McCullough followed with a two-run single to right field before Greg Sykes had an RBI single on a blooper to the shallow outfield.
"When they changed pitchers, it gave us a huge lift," McCullough said. "The first guy (Macen McGee) was throwing well and then he started walking people. After the pitching change, we got some really good pitches to hit. It opened the offense up."
South Panola struck for two runs in the first. Dale settled down after that and allowed five hits in six innings. Hunter Mullis retired the side in order in the seventh.
"Each game I have one bad inning," Dale said. "Usually it is the third or fourth inning. I felt like a lot of confidence out there after the slow start. I have 100 percent faith in my guys. They are my teammates, best friends, and brothers. I knew we were going to find a way to score. I just had to keep shutting them down."
Columbus tried to answer in the first. The Falcons scored once but could not tally more, thanks in part to two base-running mistakes.
"We really made some bad plays early," Cook said. "Our focus might have been slightly off. The thing about this team is that it is older and more mature. No one ever gets down. We play with a lot of confidence when we are behind. That is the biggest stride we have made in the last couple of seasons."
Down 3-1, Columbus closed within a run on a single by Dale in the fifth.
While the Falcons hadn't reached the Tigers' bullpen, signs of a rally were on the horizon.
"In the end, we had a lot of people hitting the ball," McCullough said. "It all started with Trace (Lee). He had a great hit to start the sixth inning and things really fell into place from there. With our team, all it takes is that one spark."
Cook likes the balance of his team. He knows the Falcons can draw that spark offensively or defensively.
"You look at Hunter and the way he really came in and set them down in order in the seventh inning," Cook said. "That is the maturity level we are playing at. The big inning sparked the defense and we went out and found a way to close out a huge win."
After making the North State playoffs last season for the second consecutive season, the Falcons hope to make a deeper run this season.
"We are doing great," Dale said. "It is the best we have done in my three years here. We haven't had a team like this. In the past, we have had seniors with talent. However, this year is different because we are one. We do a great job of playing for one another and playing for God."
Sykes had multiple hits for Columbus, which had eight hits. On this night, that would be enough to bring closure to the baseball game early in the night.
"Everybody was thinking about prom," McCullough said. "Everybody wanted to be over with this game as soon as possible. Fortunately, we pulled our heads together when we had to and got the win."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter