By Robert Wilson
FLOWOOD – The six-time defending MAIS Class 6A state champion Jackson Prep baseball team – ranked No. 22 in the country by Perfect Game – started off the 2024 season Tuesday night like it finished the 2023 season.
Prep defeated Brookhaven Academy 12-0 in four innings before an estimated crowd of 300, which included 52 Major League Baseball scouts, crosscheckers, scouting directors, and other MLB top level administrators there to see Prep senior shortstop-pitcher and LSU signee Konnor Griffin, who MLB projects as the No. 8 player taken in July’s MLB Draft.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Griffin started at shortstop, led off and had a single, walked twice, stole five bases and scored three runs and was impressive being a vocal leader for his team in his first game as a senior.
“There’s a lot going on surrounding Konnor,” Prep coach Brent Heavener said. “I was proud of the way he handled himself with so many eyes on him.”
Griffin is one of five starters back from last year’s team, which finished 31-4 and ranked No. 19 nationally by Perfect Game. The Patriots won 22 of its last 24 games and swept Madison-Ridgeland Academy for the 6A state title. It was the 22nd state title in school history.
Prep has two alumni currently in pro baseball – Jake Mangum and Will Warren – and 15 alumni currently playing college or junior college baseball.
And after Tuesday night, there’s a new name to keep up with for Prep this season. Junior left-handed pitcher Gardner Young threw three innings without allowing a hit and had six strikeouts and combined with senior John Woods Hollowell, who threw the final inning, for a no-hitter. Young – whose father, Ryan, was a star pitcher for Ole Miss in the 1990s – didn’t play much with the star-studded lineup last season but will be a key player as Prep goes for its seventh straight title.
“It was great to see that Gardner pitched really good and it was great to have John Woods come in and finish up the no-hitter,” Heavener said. “Gardner’s a guy that’s going to be in the high 80s and low 90s. He has a good breaking ball and really knows how to pitch. We are looking for big things out of him this year.”
The 6-foot-2, 180-pound Young is expected to be in the starting rotation along with Griffin – who is scheduled to pitch Friday against Lamar School at Prep – and talented sophomore right-hander Kevin Roberts, who missed Tuesday’s game because he is playing on Prep’s basketball team. Young will also play outfield and Roberts will play third base when basketball finishes.
“Gardner is one of our dudes on the mound,” Griffin said. “He’s got a really good fastball and an outstanding curveball. We will have to rely on him a lot this year. I’ve worked all off season with him and he’s more than ready. He puts his head down and works super hard when no one is watching. He’s going to have a great junior season.”
Prep scored five runs in each of the first two innings. The first three players reached base in the bottom of the first and senior outfielder and cleanup hitter Peyton Puckett hit a grand slam to get Prep off to a quick lead. Prep had five hits and had eight walks in the four-inning game.
“We as coaches were so proud of the way we came out today,” Heavener said. “We were patient at the plate. We had big hits with runners on and we pitched it really good. Peyton really jumpstarted us with that big grand slam and it was out of here. It’s just one game, but I’m glad to see the way the guys came out and play this with all the expectations on them. That’s just who they are.”
“It was a great first game,” Griffin said. “A lot of guys got on base, and we did damage early. It was good to see the bats get hot and pick up where we left off last season. I thought we were very patient at the plate. Our expectation is to win another state championship. Anything short of that is going to be unacceptable. Our team is really close, and we have a ton of fun playing together. It’s going to be a fun season.”
First-year Brookhaven Academy coach Randy Spring – who is in his 20th season coaching high school baseball – was looking for a game and is longtime friends of Heavener.
“Brent is a great guy and has done a great job there,” Spring said. “Prep is obviously very talented, and they expect and know how to win. They have great tradition and top of the line talent. They are very classy.
“I had not seen Konnor play baseball but had seen him play basketball. He is an unbelievable talent. I was impressed by how he carried himself. Konnor played hard and went about his business with a lot of energy. He seems to be a really good teammate. Our players said he was very classy. That’s not always the case with big time players. I’m definitely a fan.”
Spring is looking forward to better days than Tuesday. He has counting on his four seniors – pitcher-infielder and Copiah-Lincoln Community College signee Avery Griffin, second baseman Sam Evans, first baseman Sam Stevens and pitcher-utility player Matt Newman (out Tuesday due to soccer) – and junior catcher Caleb Authement (10 home runs as a sophomore) to lead the way this season.
Brookhaven Academy was 18-11 and reached the second of the MAIS Class 5A playoffs last season.
“I think we will be competitive in our district,” said Spring, who coached at Forrest County AHS for two seasons and Brookhaven High for 17 seasons won a state title in 2004. “We are inexperienced on the mound. Once we get them some experience, we should be ok.”