April 24, 2014 8:14:55 AM
Many tradition-rich baseball programs can argue which team or group is that school's best.
The same can't be said at Columbus High School. More than likely, the best group of Falcons is set for one last stretch run at 6 p.m. today when Columbus (19-6) plays host to Olive Branch (10-14) in a best-of-three series in the play-in round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A playoffs. The teams will play Friday at Olive Branch. If necessary, the teams will come back to Columbus on Saturday for Game 3.
The Falcons will dress nine seniors for the series. The program has made four-straight playoff appearances under seventh-year coach Jeffrey Cook, who oversees every aspect of the program. While a booster club or handful of mothers usually takes the initiative on events such as Senior Day, Cook was there Monday night directing the parents and players where to stand and when to take the field. The script full of accolades of all of the seniors was prepared by Cook.
Most baseball coaches are passionate about their sport and inherit most duties, including field maintenance. But I have never seen anyone more devoted to making every aspect of his program professional as Cook.
This Columbus senior class has accounted for 66 wins and three-straight winning seasons. Columbus joined The Clarion-Ledger Super 10 rankings for the first time in program history this season and has spent the last month ranked nationally by USA Today.
Unfortunately, it is still usually friends and family at Sammy Fletcher Field when the Falcons play a home game. Building consistent crowds has been daunting across the board for Columbus athletics, especially for baseball. Still, the Falcons play with heart, grit, and determination. Each season, Columbus boasts a group that is hard working, disciplined, and ready to compete its tails off. Some football players are taught the game and their raw skill and athleticism pay huge dividends.
Senior pitchers Trace Lee and Hunter Mullis lead Columbus. After having quarterbacked the last two Columbus High football teams, Lee will play baseball and football at Northeast Mississippi Community College. Mullis, who was named the school's Star Student, has signed an academic scholarship at Meridian C.C. Senior first baseman Chris McCullough, who will play baseball at East Mississippi C.C., is the team's third captain.
Gavonta Webb has quietly become one of the area's best catchers. He also improved his production at the plate down the stretch. Kaden Patel pitches and plays outfield. Senior Javonta Smith plays third base, while senior outfielder Michael Sturdivant has had key hit after key hit. Senior second baseman Greg Sykes is the cleanup hitter. Senior Kendrick Conner is an outfielder and has speed to burn, as evidenced by his breakout season as a rusher and receiver on the football team this past season.
In its Senior Night loss to New Hope, ninth-place hitter Isaiah Farmer was the lone junior in the lineup.
That is why this playoff run is so huge. Many of the same players helped Columbus win 25 football games in the past four seasons and return to the postseason after a long drought. This season, Columbus has lost to Class 6A, Region 3 rival Northwest Rankin three times, county rival New Hope twice, and region rival Madison Central. Season sweeps of Starkville, West Point, and Caledonia were sweet and show how far the program has come.
Now the Falcons will try to take the next step and win a playoff series. In the past three seasons, the playoff run ended with opening-round series losses to Warren Central in 2011 and 2012 and Olive Branch last season.
This much is for sure. Columbus will play hard and Columbus will play smart. They will play with love for their teammates. While some teams talk about teamwork, there is no question this bunch really likes one another. After all, most of them have played together since they were 7 years old.
In this business, we leave the biases at the door and root for fun games and engaging interviews. However, with this Columbus squad, it always has been a little different. This is the type of team you would like to succeed.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter