They were seventh graders when West Jones last won a South State baseball series. The junior-heavy lineup – though not part of the varsity squad in 2014 – can still vaguely remember the time. Not many teams in its 54-year program history can. West Jones has no state titles in baseball, and less than a handful of South State series wins.
West Jones (27-3) – with its junior-heavy lineup – will face Hattiesburg (22-10) in a best-of-three series for this year’s MHSAA Class 5A South State title with hopes of adding to the less than handful number.
Statically, neither team is an overwhelming favorite. While Hattiesburg has a slight edge at the plate with team batting average that’s .08 higher than that of West Jones’ .307 – which statically isn’t enough cause great concern – the Mustangs hold an edge on the mound with a team ERA that’s 1.1 better than the Tigers.
“I feel like, just with any baseball game, if you pitch and play defense well you have a chance to beat whoever you’re playing,’ said West Jones second-year head coach Trey Sutton. “I like our pitching depth on the mound in this series. But I know Hattiesburg has some great arms too.
“I think the key is whether or not our arms can keep Hattiesburg’s offense in check enough. The defensive part of that goes along with it. When Hattiesburg puts it in play, we have to be their defensively and make the play. Pitching and defense will be key, and they’ve been big for us all year.”
West Jones has been phenomenal on defense thus far, boasting a .968 fielding percentage, .53 better than that of Hattiesburg’s .915.
“Our statistics show [how good we’ve been on defense this year],” stated Sutton. “If you’re fielding .940 as a baseball team then that’s considered pretty darn good. We’re fielding in the 960’s, so that’s great.
It was the bats in Soso, though, that set the stage for Thursday night’s Game 1 showdown. Trailing 6-4 in a decisive Game 3 vs. Pearl River Central with two on and one out in the bottom of the seventh, junior slugger Kris Riley did the only thing possible to saved West Jones from a third-round series loss. On a 1-0 pitch, Riley seized the perfect opportunity for the craziest of all endings last Saturday night in Soso, crushing the ball to the deepest part of centerfield for a game-winning three-run walk-off home run.
“That game was a roller coaster of roller coasters,” Sutton said. “The three-run home run that Dunhurst hit [in the top of the seventh] was deflating. But we were able to wiggle out of it. When the guys came over after the inning, they weren’t in a panic. They’ve been down before, and even though this stage was bigger, the situation was no different.
Then, all the craziness happened. Riley just found a way to get it done.”
Six West Jones players come into the 5A South State series batting over .300, compared to just four for Hattiesburg. But it’s the bats of Joe Gray (.462) and Dexter Jordan (.404) that put Hattiesburg over the top in team averages.
Another concern for Sutton and Company is Hattiesburg’s overall team speed. Hattiesburg has stolen 88 bases on the season thus far. West Jones has just 17.
“They have a lot of team speed, and they use it,” said Sutton. “But the way to counter that is to mix times up on the mound. It also helps to have a good catcher. And we do.”
IMPORTANT NOTE: Hattiesburg handed West Jones its first loss of the season back on March 3, 4-0. While West Jones saw two Hattiesburg pitchers they will likely face as starters in this upcoming series, Hattiesburg did not.