For the third year in a row, Hattiesburg will play for the chance to represent the south at Trustmark Park for the Class 5A baseball championship. Rather than reflect on that accomplishment after the season, the Tigers are living in the moment, realizing full well how unique the achievement is.
“I just got through talking to some players and coaches about how unique it is to make it back for three consecutive years,” said Hattiesburg head coach Joe Hartfield. “It takes a lot of talent. It takes a coaching staff that works hard. It’s just a tremendous feeling to walk out here today and know that we’re fixing to play for a South State championship.”
All told, they’re two wins shy of making a return trip to Pearl and four from capturing the school’s first state baseball title since 2006. West Jones stands in the way of Hattiesburg reaching both of those marks. The Tigers and Mustangs will face off beginning Thursday for the Class 5A South State championship.
It will be the second time the teams have played one another this season. Behind a combined pitching shutout from Joe Gray and Dexter Jordan, Hattiesburg blanked West Jones 4-0 on March 3, handing the Mustangs their first loss of the year. West Jones (27-3) proceeded to win 17 straight on the way to claiming the Region 5-5A crown. So a lot has changed since then.
“We played them earlier in the year, and it was a little different,” said Hattiesburg senior and Louisiana signee Dexter Jordan. “It’s playoff time, and they’re going to play totally harder than when we played them the first time. They’ve got some good hitters over there and some good pitching.”
West Jones’ pitching staff is led by junior Dustin Dickerson, who boasts a sub-1.00 earned run average and an undefeated record (8-0) in 61 innings pitched. Kris Riley, Evan Bynum and Hayden Bryan have all logged at least 30 innings pitched and have combined to go 15-1.
Sam Hill sports a team-leading .365 batting average to lead West Jones. Hill is one of seven Mustangs that have driven in at least 15 runs and hit at least one home run. Riley leads West Jones in the latter with five, including a walk-off, three-run homer against Pearl River Central in game three of the last series.
West Jones took down the Blue Devils there and swept Brookhaven in the round prior to reach the South State round.
Hattiesburg (22-10) started off the postseason with a bang, sweeping Wayne County in two wins by a combined 18-3. The Tigers then faced South Jones in the playoffs for a third straight year. After dropping game one, Hattiesburg won two straight to win the series, including a six-run comeback in game two.
“That game right there, it’s a big confidence boost for any team,” said Jordan. “Like Coach Hartfield told us, game two was the most important game out of any series. Us going nine innings and showing we’ve got heart in battling throughout that game, it really gave us momentum for game three.”
Jordan and Alabama State signee AJ Stinson lead Hattiesburg’s pitching staff with a combined 100 innings pitched and 121 strikeouts. Either, along with a few others including Ole Miss signee Joe Gray, would be a prime candidate to start game one for the Tigers on Thursday night.
“We have a pretty deep pitching staff, and you have to have one to get to this point. West Jones does as well,” said Hartfield. “We’re still not sure who we’ll pitch game one. Normally, it’s Dexter [Jordan], but we may throw one of our other guys. We feel like we have confidence in all four of our starters. We’ll just see what we feel like come game day.”
As previously mentioned, the first game of the much-anticipated series will come Thursday night at West Jones. Friday night in game two, the Tigers’ seniors will play their final game at Smokie Harrington Park.
“We wanna take advantage of the situation,” said Hartfield. “They’re a very talented group. We have eight guys in that senior class, and all of them started the last two games. They all contribute on the field and have a great impact on the outcome of the game.”
“We gotta go complete the job now,” added Jordan. “It’s our senior year, and we’ll never get a chance to play high school baseball again. We gotta look at it now and take advantage of it. We don’t wanna look back and say what we could’ve done. We wanna say that we did it.”
If necessary, game three will be back at West Jones Saturday night. All game times are 7 pm.