By Robert Wilson
Photos by Chris Todd and Robert Smith

         FLOWOOD – For those who thought Jackson Prep might get complacent after winning four consecutive MAIS state baseball championships, think again.

         Prep were razor focused in the first game of the best-of-three series for the MAIS Class 6A state championship.

         Prep sent 14 batters to the plate and scored 11 runs in the first inning on its way to a 14-3 victory in five innings over Madison-Ridgeland Academy Tuesday night before an estimated 600 at Prep.

         Prep, ranked No. 19 nationally by Perfect Game, improved to 30-6 and won its fifth game in a row, third straight in the playoffs. Prep has scored nine or more runs in five consecutive games and averaged 11 runs in those games. MRA, ranked No. 19 nationally by Baseball America, dropped to 35-5 and broke a five-game winning streak. It was the most runs MRA has allowed since losing to Prep 14-4 April 2 last season.

         Prep, which beat MRA two of three games during the regular season series, and MRA meet in Game 2 Wednesday at 6 p.m. at MRA in Madison. Game 3, if necessary, is scheduled for Thursday at 6 p.m. at Prep.

         Prep’s scheduled starting pitcher for Game 2 Wednesday is freshman phenom Konnor Griffin – the No. 1 rated player in his class in the country by Perfect Game. The right-hander has a 6-1 record with a 0.73 earned run average and has 56 strikeouts in 38 1/3 innings. He has not allowed a hit in his last 10 1/3 innings, dating back to April 8 against Hartfield. Griffin allowed no hits and had five strikeouts and allowed only one ball out of the infield in last week’s 15-1 victory in Game 2 over Hartfield in the semifinals. It was his first game pitching in three weeks, 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.

         MRA’s scheduled starter is sophomore left-hander Drew Lambert, who has an 8-0 record with a 2.36 ERA. He has 46 strikeouts in 53 1/3 innings. Lambert – who is one of five sophomores who have started many games this season for MRA – allowed only four hits and no runs in six innings in a 7-3 win over Jackson Academy last week in Game 2 in the semifinals. He has not allowed a run in 11 consecutive innings, dating back to the second game against JA on April 21.

         MRA scored one run in top the first inning. Senior outfielder and Northwest Mississippi Community College signee Peyton Martin – MRA’s top hitter with a .449 batting average – hit a single to score leadoff hitter, sophomore designated hitter Nicholas Arnold.

         Prep answered and answered big.

Junior second baseman and leadoff hitter Duncan Mathews singled, senior left fielder and Northwest Mississippi CC signee Cy Craig had a bunt single and senior catcher and Louisiana Tech signee Eli Berch was hit by pitch to load the bases. Senior left fielder and Louisiana Monroe signee Trey Bridges reached on an MRA throwing error and Prep scored three runs. Griffin followed with an RBI single and junior center fielder and Mississippi State commitment Rives Reynolds reached on a throwing error. With one out, junior designated hitter and Meridian CC commitment Matthew Cochran hit a two-run single, senior third baseman Owen Abney single, Mathews singled, Craig doubled and Berch hit a two-RBI home run.

Prep had 11 hits Tuesday. Mathews, Craig, Berch and Abney had two hits each. Bridges had four RBIs. Mathews scored three runs. Craig, Reynolds and Cochran scored two each. Craig, Berch, Cochran and Abney had two RBIs each. Berch hit a home run for the second consecutive game and now has a team-high seven home runs. Prep, which had 18 hits in the Game 2 win over Hartfield last week, is hitting .369 as a team. The Patriots are averaging 8.5 runs per game and has stolen 82 bases without getting caught. It was the 16th time this season Prep has scored 10 or more runs.

“What we have talked about for the last three weeks is win every inning,” Prep coach Brent Heavener said. “That’s what I challenged them to do after MRA scored a run. Come out and win the inning. (MRA junior right-hander and Ole Miss commitment) Jackson (Evers) is a great pitcher and we knew we would going to have to battle with him. We didn’t think we would do that (score 11 runs in the first), but we did a good job and we expanded the lead. I was really proud of the at bats we had. When you’ve got a guy like (senior right-hander and MSU signee) Will Gibbs on the mound. Just got out there and let him do his thing. What good hitting teams do is when the other team makes mistakes, you pounce on it and keep going. We sent 14 batters to the plate in the first inning and that’s big for us.

“Every team talks about leaving their mark on the program. This team is no different. This is their year to come out and do something big. They are really proud of themselves, and they want to keep going (and win another state championship). Now, we’ve go to turn the page and win tomorrow. Our message after the game was this game is over and if you want to be champions, you’ve got to find a way to come out and do it again. We have a 1-0 advantage, but the series is not over. MRA is too good of a team and too good of a coaching staff. They are not just going to quit.”

Gibbs allowed three hits and had 11 strikeouts in a complete game victory. He improved to 8-2 and now has 122 strikeouts in 67 innings this season. Gibbs’ first three pitches were 94, 95 and 94 miles per hour. He threw 92 pitches, 57 for strikes. It was the second straight game Gibbs had 11 strikeouts. He allowed only three hits in six innings and had 11 strikeouts in last week’s Game 1 win over Hartfield.

“I thought we did a great job starting the game off and didn’t look back,” Gibbs said. “My offense took all the pressure off my shoulders with the 11-run, first inning. After that, I just wanted to compete in the strike zone and let my defense work.

“My mindset going into the series was just to be myself. I pitched well against MRA the last time and knew I had good enough stuff to pitch well against them again. Our defense did a great job behind me, and Eli did a great job behind the plate, managing the game. It was a great way to start the series, but we know our job isn’t finished yet.”

“I think tonight was all about coming into the game with the right mindset and not letting the big moment get to us,” Berch said. “Even though we know we’re playing for a state championship, we wanted to stick to the basics and play how we’ve been playing all year. Most importantly, we knew it was going to be a team effort with every player having to do their part in order to work as one unit. I think we did a great job of that.

“I don’t think you could have asked for a better pitching performance in such an important game by Will. He is a guy that can always be depended on to never be fazed by the moment or the spotlight. He’s best under pressure and I believe he showed that off tonight. Overall, I’m proud of the way our entire team played and I’m excited to have the opportunity to win it all tomorrow.”

“We didn’t play well,” said MRA coach Allen Pavatte, who is trying to win his first state championship since 2016. “Prep did a good job. They capitalized on our mistakes. They came out swinging and everything went their way.”

Evers has had an outstanding season. He came into the game with an 8-2 record and a 1.68 ERA with 72 strikeouts in 54 innings this season, but Tuesday wasn’t his best night.

“Sometimes when you are in a game like this of this magnitude, a pitcher feels like he’s got to make every pitch perfect,” Pavatte said. “You make a good pitch, and your defense doesn’t make a play behind you, then you make another good pitch, and they don’t make a play behind you. Now, the pressure builds and now they think, ‘Now, I’ve got to get them out.’ And we didn’t answer and put up zeros. It’s tough when you are out on that mound by yourself. You start forcing pitches and you leave pitch where they are not supposed to be, and other team hits them.”

Pavatte is hoping Wednesday will be different result.

“We always talk about nothing is as good as it seems and nothing is as bad as it seems,” Pavatte said. “Somewhere in between, reality lies. Reality is we are still alive; we are still playing, and we have an opportunity. Just like Mississippi State in the College World Series last year. They played an awful game against Vanderbilt (in Game 1 of the best of three CWS championship series) and got beat pretty handily and came out the next game and rocked (Vanderbilt All-American pitcher) Kumar Rocker. And ended up winning the College World Series. So anything can happen. We’ve got to refocus. Forget out this and throw it away. Come out with a new attitude tomorrow. We’ve won 35 ballgames. We’re not a bad team. We just had a bad day.”