By Robert Wilson
Northwest Rankin hasn’t played a game in 12 days, but the layoff didn’t hurt the Cougars Friday night in Game 1 of the best of three series for the MHSAA Class 6A championship.
Nationally ranked Northwest Rankin scored five runs in the first inning and defeated Desoto Central 9-4 before an estimated 2,000 at Trustmark Park in Pearl.
Northwest Rankin – ranked No. 5 in the nation by Baseball America, No. 6 by Collegiate Baseball, No. 8 by MaxPreps and No. 25 by Perfect Game – improved to 33-2 and won its 24th consecutive game. Desoto Central dropped to 21-11. The two teams play Game 2 Saturday at 7 p.m. in Pearl. Game 3, if necessary, is scheduled for Sunday at a time to be announced.
Northwest Rankin is now one game away from winning its first state championship since 2005. The Cougars lost to Madison Central last season in the 6A state title series, their first state championship appearance since 2005.
Desoto Central is trying to win its first state title since winning it in 2019.
Northwest Rankin had not played a game since defeating Brandon 7-6 on May 15 to sweep the semifinal series. But the Cougars didn’t show any rust. After Northwest Rankin starting pitcher and Southern Miss signee Nick Monistere retired the side with two strikeouts and a groundout, the first four Northwest Rankin batters reach base. Senior second baseman and Jones County Junior College signee Evan Rogers singled, Monistere walked, senior catcher and Meridian CC signee Brady Thomas hit a run-scoring single and junior right fielder and Hinds CC commitment Dawson Muenzenmay hit a two-run triple to give Northwest Rankin a 4-0 lead without Desoto Central recording an out.
After a couple Desoto Central errors, senior third baseman and Hinds CC signee Brice Ainsworth scored on a passed ball for a 5-0 Cougar lead.
Desoto Central scored three runs in the top of the second inning but could get no closer.
Monistere, a senior right-hander, had a solid performance despite not pitching in a game in 13 days. He allowed six hits, three runs with seven strikeouts in six innings. Monistere threw more than a hundred pitches and was still throwing in the 90s in the seventh inning. A member of the Priority One Bank/Mississippi Scoreboard Metro Jackson Preseason Elite 11 Team, Monistere improved to 11-1 on the season. He now has a 1.53 earned run average and 115 strikeouts and only 22 walks in 73 innings.
Senior right-hander and Hinds CC signee Ryan Herbison replaced Monistere with two runners on and no outs in the seventh inning and struck out three straight batters to end the game. Herbison has not allowed a run in 16 2/3 innings and has 31 strikeouts this season.
Muenzenmay, Ainsworth and Herbison had two hits each for Northwest Rankin, which had 10 hits and took advantage of nine walks by five Desoto Central pitchers and four Desoto Central errors.
“Nick gave us a clean first inning and our guys came out swinging and everything went right for us there in the first,” said second-year Northwest Rankin coach KK Aldridge, who took over for longtime coach Jeff McClaskey. “I’m proud of the way we came out of the gates.
“Give Desoto Central credit for scratching back there in the second. We gave them a couple of freebies and they capitalized. I was proud of how our guys came right back and answered. That’s something we’ve been doing all year. Each time they scored, we answered in the bottom half of the inning.”
“Tonight was all about our offense,” Monistere said. “The bats were electric from the first to the last inning. I can’t do my job without run support and my guys did it and have been doing it all year. I wouldn’t want to do this with anyone else. It feels good being one game away, but this is not over yet. We have to show up to the park tomorrow like we are down one game and hand it to them again.”
“Nick settled in and gave us six strong innings,” Aldridge said. “I was hoping he could finish it out in the seventh, but he just ran out of gas a little bit. We couldn’t have asked for anything more than what he gave us. Then, Ryan came in and close the door for us. He’s been doing that all year for us, too. It’s really nice to have him back and get a chance to pitch at Trustmark after injuring his pitching arm last year in the playoffs and not being able to pitch for us. Both those guys are competitors, and we feel confident with them on the mound.”