By Robert Wilson

       FLOWOOD – Jackson Prep senior shortstop and LSU signee Konnor Griffin – the top high school baseball player in the country – set the tone when he led off in the bottom of the first inning with an angry line drive triple off the right field wall.

       And his Patriot teammates followed Griffin’s lead with nine hits and 10 runs in the first two innings.

       Prep – ranked No. 3 in the country – came out wanting to make a statement after Madison-Ridgeland Academy broke Prep’s 19-game winning streak Wednesday in Game 2 of the MAIS Class 6A best of three semifinal series.

       Prep made sure it didn’t happen again Friday as the Patriots made quick work of MRA and rolled to a 11-1 victory in five innings to win Game 3 in impressive fashion before an estimated 1,200 at Prep’s Patriot Field.

       No. 1 seed and six-time defending state champion Prep improved to 37-3 – a school record for wins – and meets No. 2 seed Presbyterian Christian School, 22-9 and a semifinal winner over No. 3 Hartfield Academy in three games, next week in the best of three championship game series. Prep swept PCS in the regular season series, winning 7-3, 7-2 and 7-6. PCS was the last MAIS team to defeat Prep before MRA won Wednesday. PCS defeated Prep 12-2 in Game 2 of last year’s semifinal series.

       Game 1 is scheduled for Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Prep. Game 2 is scheduled for Wednesday at 6 p.m. at PCS. Game 3, if necessary, is scheduled for Thursday 6 p.m. at Prep.

       MRA, trying to win its first state title since 2016, finished 24-14, and 1-5 against Prep this season.

       MRA surprised Prep 7-6 Tuesday when senior right-hander and Southwest Community College signee Camp Segrest was able to get two outs with runners on first and third in the top of the seventh inning to clinch the victory, the first for MRA over Prep since 2022.

       But Segrest – along with three other MRA pitchers – weren’t able to slow down Prep Friday. Griffin’s triple and senior leftfielder Peyton Puckett’s home run – his sixth this season – gave Prep a 2-0 lead after one inning. Then Prep scored eight more runs in the second inning, with the big hits a two-run home run by junior third baseman Tre Bryant and two-run double by junior first baseman Matthew “Ham” McKinley.

       “I think that we might have gotten a little bit humbled after the game on Wednesday,” Bryant said. “After the loss we were angry and had a bad taste in our mouth. We came together as a team and told ourselves that this was not going to be it, we had to come out swinging. And that’s exactly what we did.”

       “We felt really good about how we ended the game on Wednesday and wanted to take that momentum into tonight,” Griffin said. “Our mentality was laser focused all day long and we wanted to make sure to come out and set the tone early. Kevin Roberts did a great job filling up the strike zone in those first two innings and we knew it would put a lot of pressure on MRA to make them play from behind. Jumping out to a big lead was big for us.

       “I feel like when I start off hot to lead off the ballgame our other guys feed off that. Peyton and Tre had huge home runs and the tone was definitely set very early. Offensively, it was one of our best total team efforts of the season.”

       Bryant – son of former NFL kicker Matt Bryant – is having a monster year. He is hitting .400 and has 53 runs batted in – third in the country according to MaxPreps – with 11 doubles and 36 runs. Bryant – who transferred from Orange Beach after his freshman year – hit .448 last season as a sophomore. He has offers from Air Force, Army, Louisiana Monroe and North Georgia and said Georgia, Arizona State, Georgia Southern, South Alabama, Samford and Wofford are showing interest.

       Griffin – projected as the No. 6 pick in the Major League Baseball draft in July by ESPN – had two hits Friday and improved his average to .565 and leads the nation with a school record 72 runs scored and is third in the nation with a school record 79 stolen bases. He ranks seventh in Mississippi history in stolen bases in a season and is three short of moving into fifth place. Griffin has a .700 on base percentage and a 1.000 slugging percentage. 

       Griffin, Roberts, and Puckett had two hits each. Every player in Prep’s starting lineup had at least one hit. Puckett and junior outfielder Gardner Young scored two runs. Roberts, Bryant, McKinley, and senior catcher Thomas Cross had two RBIs each.

       “I cannot say enough about how our guys came out and played tonight,” said Prep coach Brent Heavener, who has won a state title every year since he has been head coach at Prep except for the covid year of 2020. “I thought we got it rolling in the right way in the last inning Wednesday night and we picked up right up from there and just kept it going. Kevin did a great job on the mound and gave us what we needed, and Reid Vineyard did a great job to finish it up. (Former major league pitcher and Prep associate head coach) Coach (Jay) Powell does an excellent job with our pitching staff. And they set the school record for strikeouts tonight, breaking the 2021 team that had 348 and we have 350.

       “Our offense got a big start with Konnor’s triple. We never looked back. We had big home runs by Peyton and Tre. I thought our offense was focused and ready to go tonight.”

       While the Prep bats were on fire, Roberts, a 6-foot-5 sophomore right-hander, and Vineyard, a junior left-hander, cooled down MRA and allowed only two hits and combined for seven strikeouts. Roberts – who was hitting 94 miles per hour on Prep’s radar gun and is ranked the top sophomore in Mississippi and No. 11 in the country by Perfect Game – threw the first three innings and Vineyard the last two.

       “Coach Powell talked to Kevin about coming in the first inning and worrying about that, not to worry about how long you are going to pitch,” Heavener said. “Batter by batter, he battled and was able to put together a great performance. As a 15-year-old, that was a big deal tonight. He settled in and I was really proud of him.”

       This wasn’t the first pressure pitching situation Roberts had faced in his young career. As a freshman, Roberts was the winning pitcher in Game 3 of last year’s semifinal series against PCS. He allowed no runs with six strikeouts in 3 1/3 innings to help Prep to a 10-0 victory.

       “I had a lot of adrenaline going into tonight,” Roberts said. “I wanted to get groundballs and let my defense work. That two spot in the first inning set the tone.”

       “It was Prep’s night,” said MRA coach Allen Pavatte, who has won two state titles (2012 and 2016) and seven state runner-up finishes in 13 seasons at MRA. “Their bats were locked in and loaded. They hit us right in the mouth in the first and we didn’t score in the second and it went south quick. They played their best and we didn’t. Prep has three good starting arms. Their guy today (Roberts) was throwing 94 tonight. They played well. I tip my hat to them.”

       “It was obviously a tough loss for us, but I’m proud of how we fought this week,” said MRA senior second baseman and Northwest Mississippi CC signee Jack Dye, who had one of MRA’s two hits Friday. “Tonight just wasn’t our night and it’s baseball so that’s going to happen. Prep is a great team, and we knew they were going to be ready to play after we won Wednesday. They got the lead early and never gave us a chance to fight back.”

       For the seventh consecutive year, MRA couldn’t get past Prep in the state playoffs. 

MRA played a tough non-conference schedule and had some big wins, including wins over MHSAA Class 7A semifinalists Hernando and Oxford, and an extra inning, one run loss to Baton Rouge Catholic, ranked No. 1 in the nation. But MRA finished 8-7 and in fourth place in Class 6A play.

       “There are always storms during a season,” Pavatte said. “We played a tough scheduled and played some great games, with those wins against Hernando and Oxford and the great game with Catholic. I don’t have a perfect answer why we didn’t play well during conference play. But we did play well against Prep this week in the first two games. We caught them at the right time after not playing for 10 days with their bye. Prep gained back some momentum by scoring five runs in the seventh inning (in MRA’s one-run win). And then they carried it into today. It reminded me of two years ago when we were ahead 11-2 in Game 2 and we had a chance to 10-run rule them and we had the bases loaded and popped it up. All of a sudden we had a dogfight. We ended up winning, but we woke them up.”

       Dye is one of the seniors Pavatte is losing. Dye hit .315 and set a school record with 48 stolen bases.

       “This season was very special not only because it was my senior season, but also because of the great teammates and coaches I had. I have been blessed to have coaches like Coach Pavatte and our assistant coaches. I was blessed with a great year and could not have done it without them, my family, and God. From starting out the season finding out I had torn my left labrum, to not even knowing if I was going to be able to play my senior season, to breaking multiple records, and then to have a year like I did was truly a blessing and without God none of it would have been possible. I am truly grateful for my time at MRA, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”