Robert Wilson spent 23 years at The Clarion-Ledger/Jackson Daily News as a sportswriter with more than half of those years covering high school sports, mostly in the Metro Jackson area. He helped choose the All-Metro teams in various sports for more than a decade. Wilson has rebirthed this team this year with Two Men And A Truck/Mississippi Scoreboard All-Metro Jackson Baseball Team with 28 players and a Coach and Player of the Year. With the help of high school and college coaches, Wilson selected the best players from Hinds, Madison and Rankin Counties for this shortened season.
Pearl baseball coach Brian Jones and Brandon High senior outfielder Kellum Clark were off to great starts in their respective 2020 baseball seasons before the coronavirus stopped it in mid March.
Jones had led his Pirates to an 11-0 record and was on his way to trying to make a deep run in the Class 6A playoffs. Clark, a Mississippi State signee, had a .467 batting average with nine extra base hits in 11 games and had visions of leading his Bulldogs to a great season.
For those outstanding starts, Jones and Clark have been named the Two Men And A Truck/Mississippi Scoreboard All Metro Jackson Coach and Player of the Year respectively.
Jones, is his seventh year at Pearl and 21st year as a head coach, dominated his competition before the season ended, winning by an average of 9.2 runs per game. He said his best win was at Mid-Mississippi Classic when his Pirates defeated defending Alabama Class 7A state champion McGill-Toolen 6-5 at Trustmark Park in Pearl.
He did all this with having a limited number of players this fall. Jones has to share most of his baseball players with other sports such as football, something most Class 6A baseball coaches don’t have to worry much about.
“I had only six kids in the fall. The others were playing other sports,” said Jones, who played baseball at Neshoba Central High, East Central Community College and Belhaven University. “I’ve got some hard nosed kids who play together. They are like brothers and carry a chip on their shoulder. They know that some of the other schools around here that we play are more elite. I’m a ‘no fluff’ kind of coach. I shoot them straight. We don’t match up with most teams. We just have to outwork everybody else.
“The baseball coaches I played for were hard nosed like Steve Cheathum at Neshoba Central. He was fiery and high intensity, a football coach mentality. He challenged you. I love my kids, but myself and my two assistants (Michael Gregory and Ricky Owens) are going to work these guys and make them the best they can be.”
Guys like Gunnar Dennis, who was Pearl’s starting quarterback and Jones’ ace pitcher/first baseman this season. Dennis suffered a season-ending knee injury during his junior year in football and wasn’t able to play baseball until mid season. After playing football this fall, Dennis, a Meridian Community College baseball signee, was looking forward to a healthy senior baseball season after having arm problems as a sophomore and then last spring. Dennis, one of four seniors, was hitting .500 with five doubles, two triples, four home runs and 20 runs batted in and a 2-0 record and a 0.67 earned run average this season.
“Gunnar is a great example of the type of players we have,” said Jones, who has been a head coach at South Leake High (one year), Neshoba Central (12 years), Starkville High (one year) and Pearl (seven years). “He’s 6-foot-3, 225 pounds. A bulldog on the mound. A tough hitter. Probably would have gotten some Division I offers if we had been able to complete our season. I don’t know how we would have done the rest of the season. We might have lost 11 straight, but I think we would have done pretty well. I hope we would have made a great run in the playoffs. Also, we would have had to avoid injuries, but I felt good about our chances. We will just have to look forward to next year now.”
Jones, 47, has averaged 19.5 victories in his six previous seasons at Pearl, a school more known for its football, basketball and track and field programs than baseball. This year’s great start might have given Jones a shot at beating the best season in school history when coach Tim Dowdy led the Pirates a school record 35 wins and the Class 4A state title in 2001, Pearl’s only state baseball championship in school history.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Clark, like Jones, was rolling this season. Coming off of a junior season when he hit .500 with six doubles and 10 home runs, Clark was one hit away from matching his junior batting average (14 hits in 30 at bats) with six doubles, three home runs, 21 runs and 11 runs batted in in 12 games. He had walked 17 times and had an on base percentage of .660. Clark’s slugging percentage was .966, higher than his junior season’s .963. Clark hit .418 as a sophomore at Jackson Academy, making him one of the few players in recent memory to hit more than .400 all three years of high school. Clark’s hitting ability brought back memories of former Mississippi Player of the Year J.T. Ginn of Brandon, who was a first round pick in the Major League Baseball draft and National Freshman of the Year at Mississippi State. Although Ginn is more well known for his pitching, he was also an incredible hitter, hitting .482 with Mississippi best 16 home runs as a junior and .419 with nine home runs as a senior.
“Kellum was very meticulous when it comes to his swing and his preparation every day to be one of the top players in the state,” Brandon coach Daniel Best said. “He works hard every day at practice and after practice whether it’s at our field or his house. That’s one of the most important things when you are talking about next level players, the work they put in when nobody is watching. Kellum also has a very good understanding of the strike zone and doesn’t chase hardly anything off the plate.
“I was super pumped for this season,” Clark said. “Brandon had a shot to win it all this year and I was really looking forward to it. The season was taken from us, and the bad part is that we were just starting to play well. I had a feeling that they were going to cancel the season, but there was still a little bit of hope. My first reaction was very sad and I had some self-pity, but I realized that not everyone is as blessed as those of us who get the opportunity to play college ball. I really feel bad for the seniors that don’t get another season.”
For Clark though, he gets to go back for his dream school.
“I can’t wait to get there,” Clark said. “I’m going to do my best to contribute in any way I can, and I’m going to work my butt off for a position. I love the school and the fans.”
Clark grew up in Brandon, but decided to go play in the eighth grade at JA and for coach Jay Powell, a former West Lauderdale High, Mississippi State and major league pitcher. Clark’s dad, David, went to West Lauderdale and knows Powell. Clark hit .340 as an eighth grader, .298 as a freshman and .340 as a sophomore at JA before transferring back to Brandon.
“JA was really good to me, and I have nothing negative to say about them, but it just wasn’t for me,” Clark said. “I grew up in Brandon, I went there until the eighth grade, transferred to JA for three and a half years, but I really wanted to spend my last years at Brandon.”
The move has worked out for Clark.
“I’ve just grown as a person,” Clark said. “I’ve become more independent. I’ve learned a lot and I’ve made some good friends along the way. I love Brandon and do not regret coming back at all.”
“Since arriving at Brandon, Kellum has gotten physically stronger and also developed on the mound into a guy that could help us down the stretch as he showed in the playoffs last year,” Best said. “We were hoping to see the same this year. He has a plus fastball at 88-91 (miles per hour) consistently and developed a really good slider (Clark pitched 15 2/3 innings last year and 5 2/3 innings this year).
“Kellum is an athlete who can play anywhere on the field. So making the jump (from first base to right field this year) wasn’t a big deal for him. He moves well for a 6-4, 220-pound guy and definitely has the arm for right field, which is where we had him most games. He also played some third for us and didn’t have any issues going from one to another.”
Clark has been busy trying to improve his skills after the season was suspended, then cancelled.
“Ever since the quarantine started, I’ve been going through my usual routine,” Clark said. “I have treated every day just like I was in the middle of the season. I was prepared to go back if we were allowed to. My routine was around noon I would go hit, throw and do some infield drills, then I’ll go work out for a couple of hours, then hit again later that day.”
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Kellum Clark, Brandon
COACH OF THE YEAR: Brian Jones, Pearl
Pitcher: Brooks Rice, Madison Central, Sr.
Pitcher: Gunnar Dennis, Pearl, Sr.
Pitcher: Jacob Payne, Madison Central, Sr.
Closer: Justin Storm, Madison Central, Sr.
First Base: Lincoln Sheffield, Hartfield, Jr.
Second Base: Niko Mazza, MRA, Jr.
Shortstop: Christopher Snopek, MRA, Sr.
3B: Riley Maddox, Jackson Prep, Jr.
Catcher: Jalen Cowan, Clinton, Sr.
Outfielder: D.J. Walker, Brandon, Sr.
Outfielder: Kellum Clark, Brandon, Sr.
Outfielder: Colton Bradley, Hartfield, Soph.
Utility player: Luke Lycette, NWR, Jr.
Designated hitter: Case Page, NWR, Sr.
Pitcher: Brayden Jones, MRA, Jr.
Pitcher; Bryce Fowler, Germantown, Jr.
Pitcher: Mason Nichols, Jackson Prep, Jr.
Closer: Alex McGarrh, Hartfield, Soph.
1B: Hunter Hines, Madison Central, Jr.
2B: Colton Hegwood, Brandon, Jr.
SS: Colton Gardner, Germantown, Jr.
3B: Andrew Jones, Brandon, Jr.
Catcher: Gentry Tigrett, Brandon, Sr.
Outfielder: Blake Summerlin, NWR , Jr.
Outfielder: Dakota Jordan, Canton Academy, Soph.
Outfielder: Jake Jones, Pearl, Sr.
Utility player: Land Gebhart, Jackson Academy, Sr.
DH: Patrick Martin, East Rankin, Sr.