By Robert Wilson

         FLOWOOD – After a three-week absence, Jackson Prep freshman phenom Konnor Griffin – rated as the No. 1 player in the country in his class by Perfect Game – returned to the mound Wednesday night against Hartfield in the MAIS Class 6A semifinal series.

         Griffin’s teammates welcomed him back with a hitting show and Griffin joined in on the fun.

         Griffin didn’t allow a hit and struck out five in four innings and hit a home run and Prep banged out 18 hits in a 15-1 victory over Hartfield in the second game to sweep the best-of-three series.

         No. 1 seed and four-time defending MAIS state champion Prep, ranked No. 19 in the nation by Perfect Game, improved to 29-6 and advanced to next week’s state championship series against No. 2 seed Madison-Ridgeland Academy, 35-4 after sweeping Jackson Academy in the other semifinal series. Prep defeated MRA twice in the three game, regular season series this year.

No. 4 seed Hartfield finished 21-16 and lost to Prep in all five meetings this season.

         Prep senior right-hander and Mississippi State Will Gibbs allowed only three hits and struck out 11 in six innings and Prep had 11 hits in a 9-0 victory Tuesday night in Game 1 at Prep.

         Prep continued its dominance Wednesday.

         After Hartfield scored a run without getting a hit in the first inning, Griffin was practically untouchable. He struck out the side in the second inning, had a walk erased by a double play in the third and got three straight outs in the fourth.

         Griffin hadn’t pitched in a game since allowing no hits in five innings in a win over Parklane on April 15. Griffin, also a shortstop, injured his hip at a track meet on April 20 and missed four games before pinch hitting against Jackson Academy on April 29. He has now not allowed a hit in his last 10 1/3 innings, dating back to April 8 against Hartfield.

         Griffin – who allowed only one ball to go leave the infield Wednesday (junior second baseman Garrett Jackson hit a fly out to left field) – improved to 6-1 and his earned run average is now 0.73. He has 56 strikeouts in 38 1/3 innings this season.

         After two hits in three at bats Wednesday, Griffin improved his batting average to .482 with 42 runs, 25 RBIs, 10 doubles, 4 triples and 5 home runs this season. He has made only one error.

“I’m so proud of Konnor tonight,” Prep coach Brent Heavener said. “His fastball was dominant. No hits in four innings. You can’t ask much more from him. Konnor hit a big home run to tie it up to help himself. Big time players make big plays when the game is on the line. He was 90 to 92 (miles per hour) tonight. Konnor said he felt good. He’s almost back to where he needs to be. It is a big boost for us to have him out there. He hits the ball so well. He makes things happen. Everybody plays hard and plays well when he’s out there.”

“I was trying to get ahead with my fastball and establish that because I haven’t thrown to live hitters in about three weeks so trying to get a feel for the fastball and went from there with the curveball,” Griffin said. “It was a little hit or miss but it got the job done. It took a lot of patience (dealing with his injury). We went to PCS (Presbyterian Christian) and I had to sit and watch two games and then the whole JA series. I listened to the doctors, rested and did what they wanted me to do with coming back. I slowly got into it and now I’m 100 percent ready to go. It was awesome being back out there with my boys. And headed to the state championship. Couldn’t ask for anything better.”

Griffin was one of four Prep players who hit home runs Wednesday. Third baseman Matthew Cochran hit a solo home run in the second inning to give Prep a 2-1 lead. Senior catcher and Louisiana Tech signee Eli Berch hit a three-run home run over the Hartfield scoreboard in left field and senior left fielder and Louisiana Monroe signee Trey Bridges followed with a solo homer in the ninth-run third inning. Prep’s first two hitters, junior second baseman Duncan Mathews and senior right fielder and Northwest Mississippi Community College signee Cy Craig had three hits each. Berch, Bridges, Griffin and senior shortstop Owen Abney had two hits each. Cochran scored three runs and Mathews, Abney and junior first baseman Graham Busbea scored two runs each. Berch had four RBIs and Craig, Cochran and Abney had two each.

         “We knew we had to stay up the middle, we got some good bats and drove the ball,” Heavener said. “Once we got rolling, especially in the third it kind of opened up. When you put the ball in play, good things can happen. We still have a lot of work to do going into next week. We like where we are at. It’s not going to be easy. We’ve got to come back out and do it again next week.”

         “They crushed the ball,” said first-year Hartfield coach Justin Smith, who was promoted from assistant coach when Chuck Box became the director of player personnel at Texas A&M. “Konnor played really well and hitting the home run gave him some juice on the mound. He’s a really good player and an ultra-competitor. I’m sure having Konnor back gave their guys some juice.”

         Smith had a difficult first year as head coach. He had numerous injuries to key players.

Hartfield’s trio of players on the Priority One Bank/Mississippi Scoreboard Metro Jackson Preseason Elite 11 Team have all been injured at different points in the season. Senior outfielder Colton Bradley broke his ankle two months ago and had surgery and just came back last week as a pinch-hitter. Senior first baseman-outfielder Lincoln Sheffield hasn’t been able to pitch much due to shoulder issues. Senior pitcher and Hinds Community College signee Alex McGarrh has been out most of the season with arm problems.

Hartfield has had other key players miss action this season as well. Senior third baseman Bran Boyd, one of last year’s top hitters, missed half of the season with a back injury. Senior left-hander Reid Gaston, the starting pitcher for the first game of most of the conference series this year, missed the last two weeks with arm soreness. Junior pitcher Jacob Canoy suffered an elbow injury three weeks ago.

His pitching staff was beat up by injuries Smith started eighth-grader Taylor Latham Tuesday night in Game 1 against Prep. It was only his second start this season and he had pitched only 13 innings all season.

“Every week it seemed to be someone different,” Smith said. “It kept our media guys asking what the lineup is going to be. Well, so and so hurt his hand today so he might not be in the lineup. It was almost someone getting hurt. It wasn’t easy. It came to a point that we realized its really difficult in this league to lose a couple of key guys and not have success. I’m looking out there and we’ve got a freshman playing and other team has juniors and seniors. I hope this is the last year I have to deal with these kinds of things.”