May 22, 2014 10:14:29 AM
West Jones High School baseball coach Joey Ward feels like his Mustangs will have a chance this weekend if they can play some tight games.
West Jones (24-10) will try to put that plan into action at 7 tonight when it takes on defending state champion New Hope (30-3) in Game 1 of a best-of-three series for the Mississippi High School Activities Association's Class 5A state championship at Trustmark Park in Pearl.
West Jones, which has never won a baseball state championship, is in its second state title series. Its only other appearance in the state finals was in 1986 when it lost to the former Lee High School of Columbus.
"The kids have never stopped believing," said Ward, who is in his ninth season. "We have a great group of seniors, but there is so much more that goes into it than that. You have to catch the breaks. You have to have everything go your way to be in this position. We know we are blessed to be here."
West Jones reached the state title series by winning an epic battle for the South State crown. It dropped the series opener to East Central 2-1 in eight innings. West Jones returned home to post a 9-6 victory on a final at-bat grand slam by Wes McDonnieal. The series clincher was a 3-0 win in nine innings last Saturday in Hurley.
By placing third in Class 5A, Region 5, West Jones had to open in the play-in round, just like New Hope did in the 2013 playoffs. After sweeping Long Beach 4-3 and 7-5 in that round, West Jones stared elimination in the face, going down a game immediately to George County before winning 1-0 and 12-10. A sweep of Pearl River Central followed before the series against East Central.
"I think the George County series was really a statement situation," Ward said. "We had been close all year, just missing out on winning the region. We had some near-misses against some really good non-region opponents. Still, the kids kept battling and working hard. They knew we were right there. When we turned the George County series around, it really lifted us to another level."
West Jones has played 14 games decided by two runs or less and gone to extra innings four times in 10 playoff games. The close losses included narrow setbacks to South Jones and Wayne County, who shared the region's regular-season title. In non-region play, the schedule has included a split of two games with Class 2A South State champion Taylorsville and a two-run loss to Class 6A South State champion Oak Grove.
"The kids got a taste last year," Ward said. "We made the playoffs and lost in the second round to Pascagoula (which eventually lost to New Hope in the state championship series). We played Pascagoula to a one-run and two-run defeat. In each game, we were close but couldn't get the key out or get that one extra hit. It really led to a great effort during the off-season because we thought this had a chance of happening."
That West Jones squad lost six of its final seven regular-season games. However, a series sweep of Brookhaven in the play-in round and the near miss to Pascagoula proved enough motivation to give the team a good springboard, despite a 15-13 finish.
This season, West Jones -- much like New Hope -- has ridden a stellar pitching staff to the state championship series. The Mustangs have a team ERA of 1.69. Senior Garrett Goodwin (8-3, 1.27 ERA) is expected to draw the start in the series opener. Goodwin has appeared in 16 games and thrown 77 1/3 innings. He has 87 strikeouts and 22 walks. Fellow senior Timmothy Jordan (6-5, 2.25) has been almost as effective. In 13 appearances (71 2/3 innings), Jordan has struck out 85 and walked 27.
Both pitchers gained valuable experience last season. Offensively, West Jones is hitting .272 as a team. Goodwin, who is also a first baseman, leads the team with a .327 average. The Mustangs have homered seven times, including a team-best three by Goodwin.
"New Hope is the measuring stick for the rest of Class 5A5-2," Ward said. "We understand the challenge that is ahead. If you are playing for a state championship, you expect a really good opponent in all aspects. We got just that."
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter