Photo by Robert Smith

By Robert Wilson

       Justin Smith was promoted as Hartfield Academy’s head baseball coach after Chuck Box took a job as director of player personnel Texas A&M two years ago, expecting to continue what Box had built at the Rankin County private school, one of the fastest growing schools in the MAIS.

       But Smith – who was an assistant to Box for three seasons – had a difficult season, with six of his key players out with injuries at various times during the season and finished in fourth place in the six-team Class 6A conference in the regular season.

       Smith’s pitching staff was so depleted, he had to start an eighth grader on the mound in the Class 6A state semifinal series against nationally ranked Jackson Prep.

       Hartfield finished 21-16 last season, with five of those losses with Prep, which won its fifth straight state title last season and finished ranked in the Top 20 in the country.

       But this season has been an improvement for Smith, who has led his team to a 19-6 overall record and 6-3 in league play and is in second place behind Prep in the 6A race after sweeping Jackson Academy this week.

       “This has been a fun group to coach,” Smith said. “Our players have done a great job of buying into what we need to do as a team to have success. I told them at the beginning of the year if they don’t focus on their own personal numbers and just do whatever it takes to win, then they will be surprised at how much better their year will be.”

       Hartfield defeated JA 6-1, 3-1 and 11-1 to complete its second conference series sweep, also sweeping Presbyterian Christian School. Hartfield’s only conference losses are to Prep, which again is nationally ranked this season.

Hartfield Cather Carter Biggers – Photo by Robert Smith

       In the JA series, Hartfield junior designated hitter Dakota Smith hit .750 (3 for 4) with two doubles. Senior catcher Carter Biggers hit .500 (4 for 8) with a home run, a triple and five runs batted in. Sophomore outfielder Brady Griffin hit .500 (4 for 8) with a double. Sophomore pitcher-outfielder Wiggy Ball, who has played only five games after joining the team late from basketball, hit .444 (4 for 9).

       Biggers is having a monster year, leading the team with a .388 batting average, 10 doubles, 4 triples, 6 home runs and 32 RBIs. Two other regular starters are hitting above .300 – Griffin at .365 with 19 RBIs and senior first baseman Ben Stringer with .313 with 19 runs and 26 RBIs. Senior shortstop Garrett Jackson leads the team with 26 runs scored.

       Junior left-handed starting pitcher Cole Stumph has a 6-1 record and a 2.68 earned run average with 53 strikeouts in 47 innings. Senior right-handed relief pitcher Jacob Canoy has a 1.86 ERA with 27 strikeouts and only four walks in 26 1/3 innings. Canoy and Griffin have two saves each.

       “Carter has been big for us and without him in the lineup, there are a lot more losses on our record,” Smith said. “Ben and Garrett have both delivered in key moments at the plate that have helped us win. Jacob is a side arm guy who has been a big part of our pitching for the last four years and has gotten better each year.”

       Smith does have one key player with an injury this year. Senior left-handed pitcher Drew Newman – Hartfield’s only college signee or commitment (Holmes CC) – is out with a fractured foot, but Smith hopes to get him back in a few weeks. Newman is 2-0 with a 3.68 ERA.

Smith, 29, had a successful playing career. He played infield and catcher, was the conference player of the year and was a part of three consecutive MAIS state championships at Hillcrest Christian School. Smith played catcher and helped Hinds Community College to the junior college state championship and made the all-state and played outfield for Nicholls State. He was an assistant for one season at St. Aloysius before coming to Hartfield. 

Smith had high expectations a year ago after Box took Hartfield to a 35-4 record two years ago and had two Class 4A state runner-up finishes in his last four seasons.

Injuries made it difficult to reach Smith’s goals.

Hartfield’s trio of players on the Priority One Bank/Mississippi Scoreboard Metro Jackson Preseason Elite 11 Team were injured at different points in the season. Senior outfielder Colton Bradley broke his ankle and missed the majority of the season. Senior first baseman-outfielder Lincoln Sheffield didn’t pitch much due to shoulder issues. Senior pitcher Alex McGarrh was out most of the season with arm problems.

Hartfield Pitcher Cole Stumph – Photo by Robert Smith

Also, senior third baseman Bran Boyd, one of top hitters two years ago, missed half of the season with a back injury. Junior left-handed pitcher Reid Gaston, who was the starting pitcher for the first game of most of the conference series last year, missed some time with arm soreness. Canoy suffered an elbow injury and missed some games.

“Every week it seemed to be someone different getting hurt,” Smith said. “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. If you want to have a chance at competing for a championship in this league then you need seniors producing and unfortunately for us last year, they were either hurt or playing hurt.”

Hartfield plays another conference series this week against Parklane, which is in last place with a 1-8 record in conference play. Hartfield plays host to Parklane Tuesday in Game 1 then plays a doubleheader Friday at Parklane in McComb.