April 19, 2014 11:12:39 PM
This week will be an important week for three Lowndes County baseball teams.
While Columbus High School already has secured a playoff spot and will begin postseason action later this week, Heritage Academy and New Hope High will have one more week to prepare for what they hope will be runs to championships.
Columbus and New Hope will kick off the week with a 6 p.m. game Monday at Columbus High. The Falcons (18-5, 5-4 Class 6A, Region 3) will honor seniors Trace Lee, Hunter Mullis, Chris McCullough, Greg Sykes, Gavonta Webb, Michael Sturdivant, Kaden Patel, Kendrick Conner, and Javonta Smith before playing their county rival. New Hope beat Columbus 3-2 on April 12 at New Hope High.
The game will come five days after Columbus beat Starkville 2-0 in eight innings to eliminate the Yellow Jackets from the playoffs. The Falcons already had clinched the No. 2 spot in the region behind Northwest Rankin and secured a date against Olive Branch in its first best-of-three playoff series. Columbus will play host to Olive Branch at 6 p.m. Thursday in Game 1. The second game will be Friday at Olive Branch. If needed, Game 3 will be at a time to be determined Saturday in Columbus.
Columbus coach Jeffrey Cook said the Starkville victory was a "big game" for his team, not only because it was against one of the school's biggest rivals, but also because it helped bounce back from losses to Northwest Rankin, Madison Central, and New Hope.
"A lot of people around the state were wondering how we would react to a game that really didn't mean anything for us in the division, but it was the next game for us and we needed to play better," Cook said. "We didn't play bad last week, but we didn't play Columbus baseball. It was a big game and a chance to play your rival and to knock them out of the playoffs. It also was a chance to get back on track to doing things we have done all season."
Cook credited second baseman Tyler Harmon for helping turn a key double play in the fifth inning when Starkville had the bases loaded. Although they weren't able to score against Colbey Rivers until the eighth inning, Cook said the Falcons were able to do a better job getting bunts down and moving runners. He said Columbus will have to keep doing that this week and against Olive Branch, the team that eliminated it from the postseason last year.
First, though, Columbus will face New Hope and Tuesday against Caledonia. Cook said the Falcons, who are ranked No. 19 in the USA Today Super 25 rankings, have relied on pitching and defense all season. A staff led by Lee, Mullis, and McCullough has thrown five no-hitters this season. As pleased as he has been with his senior stalwarts on the mound, Cook said the contributions of Patel, Sturdivant, Smith, and Bryan Ezell have been equally valuable.
"(Trace and Hunter) have set good examples for everybody by throwing strikes and not walking people, which puts them in the right frame of mind to get the job done," Cook said. "The last time I looked, I think our strikeout-to-walk ratio was 3-to-1. I think it is a little higher now, but we're making teams hit the ball."
Columbus' defense has backed the pitching up on most nights. Cook praised the play of Isaiah Farmer and Patel in the outfield and Harmon and Deonteau Rieves in the infield. He said all four players have filled in depending on who is on the mound and when one is hot at the plate. He also said Sykes (third base), McCullough (first base), and Webb (catcher) have been anchors at their positions.
Still, Cook feels his team has work to do this week to get ready for the second season.
"We need to get in there and take pitches and have quality at-bats," Cook said. "I think we will be ready (for the playoffs). Olive Branch put us out last year, and our kids are excited to play against them again."
New Hope will have to wait to see who it will play in its first step on the way to trying to defend its Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A title. A year ago, New Hope finished second to Oxford in Region 2, but a win Tuesday at Oxford and an 8-0 victory Friday at West Point helped New Hope (21-3, 7-1) wrap up first place and secure a first-round playoff bye.
J.C. Redden pitched six strong innings to get the victory. Josh Stillman closed the game, which featured only three hits by the Trojans. Wells Davis, Will Golsan, and Jake Hollis had the hits on a day New Hope coach Lee Boys said his team had a lot of hard-hit balls. He praised West Point's outfielders for tracking down all of them, including several that went all the way to the wall.
"It is a big step for us," Boyd said of winning the district title. "That is always the first step to win the division. Oxford is always good, and Saltillo and West Point have good teams, too. We didn't want to leave it up for grabs. We wanted to make sure we took care of our business. We're excited."
New Hope will take on Saltillo on Tuesday to complete its region slate. Boyd said the Trojans are trying to play another game he hopes will help keep them sharp for the start of the postseason.
"A lot of coaches don't like (having extra time off with a bye) and some don't have a problem with it," Boyd said. "I don't know if it is good or bad. It will give us a chance to freshen up and get healthy and a chance to work on some things. But if you're playing well you want to continue to roll. We're going to do some intrasquad things to make sure we see as many live at-bats as best we can. After playing four games a week and then not playing for a week or maybe a week and a half, it will be tough on the guys."
But Boyd feels good about where the Trojans are entering the final week of the regular season because the pitching staff and the defense have performed well. He said Stillman has done a solid job stepping in to the void left by the graduation of Landon Boyd. He also said Taylor Stafford and Redden have done "fantastic" jobs filling out the region rotation. On the weekends, Boyd said Payton Lane has "exceeded" expectations. And while the offense has been up and down, Boyd said the Trojans had 11 hits against Oxford in their third meeting and "battled well" against West Point despite only getting three hits. He hopes the offense will find its stroke just like it did last year when it came alive to power the team to the championship.
"We have picked it up the last two weeks," Boyd said. "I hope we will pick it up and that it will sink in fairly well."
Just like New Hope, Heritage Academy has a week to prepare for its first-round playoff series. Heritage Academy's 9-8 victory against Jackson Academy on Thursday helped it secure the No. 2 seed for the North in the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA, Division II playoffs. Heritage Academy (16-11, 10-8) will take on Louisiana's Oak Forest Academy, the No. 1 seed from the South, in Game 1 of the best-of-three series April 29. Game 2 of the series will be at Oak Forest Academy.
Heritage Academy coach Bruce Branch said the Patriots knew they had to win one more game to clinch a postseason berth. He said the frustration of losing 6-5 and 6-4 to Jackson Academy in the first two games of the series didn't distract the team from getting that victory.
"Our guys never lost focus the whole time," Branch said. "The night before we had the bases loaded with no outs and didn't get a run across. We gave them six unearned runs in the second game. We knew we could compete with them. We stayed focused and upbeat and knew what we had to do and our guys did it. I commend them for staying focused and getting the job done."
With only seniors Mark Thatcher, Jace Caldwell, and Cody Mordecai, Branch said this season has been "fun" in mixing and matches new faces and having other players in bigger roles. He said all of the players have "bought in" and the team has received contributions from a number of players, including Tyler Anderson (third base), Brandon Jones (second base, designated hitter), Thomas Cooper (first base), and Logan Sneed, who pitched 1 2/3 innings against Jackson Academy to help the team clinch a playoff spot.
"It has been so exciting to watch the kids mature and get better throughout the year," Branch said. "We could have gone into the season not having a whole lot of expectations not thinking we were going to be good or have any success. Our seniors have rose to the occasions and they want to leave their mark at Heritage Academy. They know the expectations we have and we set for them. They have kept everybody up. The attitude and everything has been good."
Heritage Academy will play Monday at Hamilton. It will play host to Washington School at 6 p.m. Tuesday and wrap up the regular season at 4 p.m. with a doubleheader Thursday at Washington School.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.