April 30, 2013 10:54:48 AM
STARKVILLE -- Starkville High School baseball coach Brian Jones knew his first Yellow Jackets squad would be a work in progress.
Resilience has been his team's most impressive trait. Through trials and tribulations, the team has kept swinging and battling back.
Today, the lessons learned will be needed as Starkville travels to Oxford for the first game in a best-of-three series in the first round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association's Class 5A North State playoffs.
The series starts at 6 tonight and resumes at 6 p.m. Thursday in Starkville. If needed, a third game will be at 6 p.m. Saturday in Oxford. The schools altered the playoff schedule late Monday due to the threat of wet weather later in the week.
"We really haven't made anything easy this year, but the kids have always worked hard and kept believing," Jones said. "This is when you want to be playing your best, so, hopefully, we can go out and play very well in this series."
Starkville (15-13) finished the regular season as the three seed from Class 5A, Region 3. The Yellow Jackets were alive for a share of the region crown until the final week of the regular season. A third straight loss to Jones' former employer, Neshoba Central, erased those hopes.
Starkville opened the postseason with a 12-2 six-inning victory against Jackson Provine. It closed the best-of-three series with a 17-4 victory in five innings. Oxford (22-6), which won Region 2, earned a bye and the right to play host to Starkville.
"We had a good start in each game against Provine," Jones said. "We play a lot better when we start strong and start playing with some confidence. I was pleased that after winning the first game of the series there was no letdown and we took control of the second game early."
On Saturday, Starkville scored six runs in the top half of the first. The big blow was a three-run double by freshman Matthew Oxford in his first varsity at-bat of the season.
The hit underscores the youth on the Yellow Jackets' roster. Starkville has only three seniors on its 26-player roster. Last season, a senior-laden Starkville squad fell in the North State semifinals. The offseason retirement of coach Danny Carlisle gave Jones and his staff a full plate to deal with from opening day.
"We knew going into the season we would be young in several areas," Jones said. "We just stressed working hard and taking pride in what you are doing. We challenged the kids to work hard every day and to get better. Through the course of the season, we made some strides."
Starkville, which has won eight of its last 10 games, turned the corner late in the season and improved defensively. Offensively, the team took advantage of more scoring changes. While young, the pitching staff has been solid.
Senior Max Bartlett leads the squad with a .413 batting average, 31 hits, 23 RBIs, and 10 doubles. Junior Tanner Clanton is hitting .349 with 29 hits. Junior Tyler Barnes has 21 hits, while freshman A.J. Brown has 20.
Starkville is hitting .260 as a team and has only three home runs. The Yellow Jackets have stolen 98 bases.
Clanton is 6-4 with a 3.50 ERA and a team-high 52 innings. The normal rotation also includes Bartlett and junior Tanner Jones.
"Oxford will present a challenge because they are fundamentally sound in every aspect of the game," Jones said. "We will have to take advantage of the opportunities we get. We also need to start strong and play with some confidence."
Oxford finished 8-1 in region play. It lost the first of three region meetings with New Hope only to come back and beat the Trojans twice to win the region title. The Chargers have won 12 of their last 13 games.
Freshman Jason Barber leads Oxford with a .388 average and 31 hits. Junior Hunter Roth is 7-1 with a 1.59 ERA and two saves. Oxford beat Starkville 5-2 on March 16 at Tupelo High.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter