It took a little longer than expected, but Hattiesburg is headed back to Trustmark Park. After taking game one of the Class 5A South State Championship on Thursday at West Jones, the Tigers returned to Smokie Harrington Park Friday and sent their seniors out with a 10-8 win and a series sweep in their final home game.
Hattiesburg had to mount an early comeback and fight off one late from West Jones. The Tigers were up for both of those tasks, and as a result, they’re headed to Pearl for the Class 5A State Championship for the first time since 2016.
“My thoughts are just how proud I am of everybody,” said Hattiesburg head coach Joe Hartfield. “It took every player on our team and every coach on our staff to get to this point. A lot of different people did a lot of different things to help us.”
And it wasn’t easy, especially in Friday’s game. The Tigers got on the board first with an RBI single from Kam Wells in the bottom of the first inning. In the third though, West Jones answered back with a six spot, taking a 6-1 lead on the Tigers. Following a pair of bases-loaded walks, West Jones’ Evan Bynum hit an inside-the-park grand slam which highlighted the outburst.
It appeared as if Hattiesburg centerfielder Joe Gray would be able to catch the ball and limit Bynum to a sacrifice-fly. But for the first time in his illustrious Tiger career, Gray, an Ole Miss signee, lost the ball in the lights, allowing Bynum to reach and eventually come all the way around to score.
“I was about to cry when I didn’t catch that ball,” said Gray. “After that, I just had to play with my glove up like I was almost playing in the sun, because of how bright our lights are. I think that’s what happened.”
With more than half the game left to be played, Hartfield pulled the team aside and preached patience.
“There was so much more baseball left,” said Hartfield. “Yes, it was a terrible play for us that didn’t go in our favor, but we didn’t have to score all five runs at one time.”
Hartfield’s Tigers almost did just that though, scoring four runs in the bottom of the third to cut West Jones’ lead to 6-5. Gray turned the page and picked up an RBI triple, Dexter Jordan added a sacrifice-fly and Cam Lott delivered a two-run single.
Lott added a sacrifice-fly which tied the ballgame in the fifth, and on an errant throw to third base, Hattiesburg plated another run in the inning to take the lead, 7-6. The Tigers added three more runs between then and the start of the seventh inning, stretching their lead to 10-6 on the Mustangs.
Then, West Jones made it interesting, loading the bases with only one out in the seventh. Luke Leggett followed with an RBI single, and Walker Thompson drew a bases-loaded walk to pull the Mustangs to within two runs at 10-8. In need of two outs, the Tigers turned to Kam Wells out of the bullpen, and the senior didn’t disappoint. Wells got the second out, and the third came on a pop-up to centerfield, where no other than Joe Gray made the final out.
“Kam hasn’t pitched in a big game many times all year,” said Hartfield. “All of a sudden, he’s in the biggest game of the year and gets the job done. That’s just one example of many. I’m just proud of our team.”
“I sure wasn’t going to miss that last ball,” added Gray.
As South State Champs, Hattiesburg (24-10) advances to play Lewisburg in the Class 5A State Championship. Game one of that series will be Tuesday night at Trustmark Park in Pearl. First pitch is scheduled for 7 pm.
“[It’s] just unfinished business to be honest,” said Gray. “When we get to Trustmark, we’ll be all about business and do what we’re supposed to do and hopefully come out with a win.”