By Robert Wilson
Photos by Chris Todd

         FLOWOOD – On a team loaded with Division I and junior college signees and commitments and a future major league draft pick, Graham Busbea became a new star for nationally ranked Jackson Prep on the biggest stage of MAIS baseball.

         The junior right-hander allowed only two hits with five strikeouts in 4 innings and also hit a solo home run to lead Prep to a 12-2 victory over Madison-Ridgeland Academy in five innings in the deciding and third game of the best-of-three series for the MAIS Class 6A championship Thursday night before an estimated 1,000 at Prep.

         Prep, ranked No. 19 nationally by Perfect Game, finished 31-7 and won its fifth consecutive MAIS state championship and eighth state title in the past nine seasons, not counting 2020 when there was no championship due to covid. It was the 21st state baseball championship in school history. It is also the first time in Mississippi history that a team has won five consecutive state baseball championships. Prep and MSHAA powerhouse West Lauderdale held the record with four each. Prep assistant coach Jay Powell was a part of West Lauderdale’s four peat as a player in the 1980s.

         MRA, ranked No. 19 nationally by Baseball America, finished 36-6 and lost to Prep for the third consecutive state championship series. MRA was trying to win its first state title since 2016.

         MRA tied the series at 1-1 with a 12-11 win Wednesday night to end a string of nine consecutive playoff victories by Prep dating back to 2019 when MRA won Game 1 of the championship series.

         Prep regained the momentum with five runs in the second inning to take a 5-1 lead Thursday night and never looked back. And Busbea kept MRA – which scored more runs against Prep Wednesday night than only one other team had done all season – from scoring for the next three innings as Prep increased its lead.

         While Prep senior right-hander and Mississippi State signee Will Gibbs and freshman phenom right-hander Konnor Griffin – rated as the No. 1 player in the country in his class by Perfect Game – got most of the attention on the mound this season, it was Busbea who was the pitching star in the third and deciding game of the championship series.

         Busbea came into the game with a 5-0 record and had had a solid season but had never pitched on a stage like this. Not only did Busbea pitch an outstanding game under championship pressure, he hadn’t pitched since April 29 against Jackson Academy. Busbea also played first base and outfield and has been one of Prep’s most consistent hitters, hitting .388 with 12 doubles and two home runs before Thursday night’s game.

         “Graham has done a great job for us all year and he does a great job against right-handers and MRA was starting all right-handed batters tonight,” Prep coach Brent Heavener said. “We also knew MRA had not faced Graham during our regular season series. Hopefully, Graham was going to limit MRA for a few innings before our bats got cranked up. He pitched well tonight.”

“Busbea kept us off balance and pitched a great game,” MRA coach Allen Pavatte said. “Give me credit. He was hitting the inside of the plate with his fastball and had a good slider.”

“I knew I had a big job to do with a lot of pressure and my team needed me to get it done so I basically just tried to find that mindset all day at school even with an exam I had,” Busbea said. “I also had my boys behind me, and I knew they would make the plays needed to take the victory.

“We have one of the best coaching staffs in my opinion in (associate head coach and hitting coach) Coach (Jay) Powell and (pitching coach) Coach (Zander) Romano and they really prepared me for what to expect from MRA and how to deal with it. I also have a great catcher in Eli Berch behind the plate and he makes my job easier.”

While Busbea got new attention as a rising star for Prep, the smallest player in Prep’s starting lineup – 5-foot-8, 150-pound senior right fielder and Northwest Mississippi Community College signee Cy Craig – came up big once again with three hits and four runs batted in Thursday night. Craig had a two-run double, a run-scoring single and walked and was hit by pitch to get on base each of his four plate appearances. He reached base on his all five plate appearances in Game 2 and both plate appearances in Game 1. So he reached base on all 11 plate appearances in the series. Craig – who missed 12 games with a hand injury – finished the season with a team-high .526 batting average (20 of 38). A left-handed pitcher, Craig relieved Busbea in the fifth inning Thursday and got the last three outs.

         “Cy is a great competitor and has a big heart,” Heavener said. “He has been on fire during the playoffs. Cy moved into the 2 hole in our batting order when Konnor was out with an injury and been a great hitter for us all season.”

         Senior left fielder and Louisiana-Monroe signee Trey Bridges had three hits and two RBIs for Prep. Junior centerfielder and MSU commitment Rives Reynolds, junior designated hitter and Meridian CC commitment Matthew Cochran had two hits each. Senior third baseman Owen Abney scored three runs and junior second baseman Duncan Mathews, Craig and Cochran scored two runs each.

         “After the loss last night, we had a chance to redeem ourselves on our own field, where we really wanted to win it,” Craig said. “At MRA, we had a poor defensive performance, but knew we still had momentum on the offensive side. We understood that if we turned it around on our defensive side and with our pitching, then we were going to be fine, and we, as a team, did just that. I’m so glad the outcome of that third game continued the Jackson Prep tradition of winning state championships and I got to be a part of it in my senior year.”

         “I’m proud of my guys responding after last night and playing well tonight,” Heavener said. “Our guys were relaxed coming into the game and we felt good to be playing at home. We just had to get our offensive rolling and we did. We felt like we made a statement that we are one of the best programs in Mississippi.”

         Heavener has been been a part of eight state championships at Prep, five as a head coach and three as an assistant under Chuck Box.

         It was the most wins in Pavatte’s 12 seasons at MRA. MRA lost to Prep four times, MHSAA Class 3A power Sumrall (nationally ranked as high as No. 2 by Baseball America) once and to JA once. And that’s with MRA starting five sophomores for much of the season. MRA’s ace, right-hander and Ole Miss commitment Jackson Evers, will also be back next season. He’s just a junior.

         “I told my kids after the game tonight this week doesn’t damper what we accomplished this season,” said Pavatte, who has won two state titles (2012 and 2016) at MRA. “We had a great season. Winning the championship would have been icing on the cake. We won 36 games playing against great competition. We will play anybody anywhere. We feel like we have one of the best programs in Mississippi.”   

Photos by Chris Todd