Photo by Chris Todd

By Robert Wilson

Jackson Prep’s Konnor Griffin – the No. 1 player in the country in the Class of 2024 by Perfect Game – wasn’t 100 percent Tuesday night, still recovering from a strain in his left, non-throwing shoulder, which kept him out of the hitting order as a precautionary measure.

       But the 6-foot-4, 205-pound junior right-hander was outstanding on the mound, striking out 11 and throwing a complete game to lead five-time defending MAIS Class 6A state champion and No. 1 seed Prep to a 6-2 victory over No. 2 seed Madison-Ridgeland Academy in Game 1 of the best-of-three series for the 6A state championship at Prep’s Patriot Field in Flowood.

       Prep – ranked No. 19 in the country by Perfect Game – improved to 30-4 and won for the 21st time in the last 23 games. Prep has defeated MRA in all four meetings this season. MRA dropped to 23-11. The two teams 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. This is the fourth consecutive season the two teams have played for the 6A state title. MRA last a state title in 2016.

       Griffin – whose fastball hit 95 miles per hour on Prep’s radar gun Tuesday night – was impressive. He allowed seven hits and had a shutout until MRA senior shortstop and Hinds Community College signee Kaleb Lipscomb hit a two-run triple with two outs in the seventh inning. Griffin improved to 7-1 with a 1.38 earned run average this season. He now has an amazing 81 strikeouts in 50 1/3 innings, an average of 1.6 per inning. Griffin threw 107 pitches Tuesday night, 69 for strikes.

       “I can’t say enough about Konnor,” said Prep coach Brent Heavener, who is now one win away from his Mississippi record sixth consecutive state title (not counting the covid year in 2020) in his seven seasons as head coach. “He was dominant on the mound tonight with 11 strikeouts. Konnor is becoming a true ace on the mound.”

       Griffin wants to do his part to send his senior teammates out with another state title.

       “My mindset is always to be the best that I can be for our team,” Griffin said. “It’s not about me. I had our seniors on my mind and didn’t want to let them down. I want to do anything that I can to help send them out with another state championship.

       “Being able to pitch off my fastball was huge. I got ahead in a lot of counts and being able to keep hitters guessing at that point is my advantage. My slider didn’t feel that great early on, but it clicked from the second inning on.”

       “I thought Konnor was really composed for the big stage,” Prep pitching coach Zander Romano said. “He showed how he is the ultimate competitor. We had to adjust our game plan a little with how aggressive they were attacking the fastball. Konnor has worked really hard on fine tuning his slider and it dominated last night. He had strikeouts in big moments, and he showed why he’s one of the best in the country.”

       Prep got Griffin enough runs for the win. The Patriots scored one in the first inning, two in the third and three in the sixth. Senior catcher and South Alabama signee Duncan Mathews, senior first baseman and Hinds CC signee Graham Busbea and sophomore third baseman Tre Bryant had two hits each. Busbea had a home run and a double and two runs batted in. Busbea is now hitting .510 for the season, second only to Griffin’s .537 on the team, and has 11 doubles and four home runs this season.

       “Graham’s home run came at the perfect time,” Heavener said. “He proved why he is one of the best hitters in the league.”

       Both Heavener and Griffin know this series is far from over. MRA bounced back from a loss in Game 1 in last year’s championship series to defeat Prep 12-11 to force Game 3.

       “Our work is not done, and our guys are not satisfied,” Heavener said. “We’ve got to find a way to win one more. They are a really good team and (MRA) Coach (Allen) Pavatte does a great job over there. They will be ready to go, but we will too.”

       “MRA is a good team,” Griffin said. “The regular season matchup (Prep sweep the three-game series) didn’t really matter because anything can happen in the playoffs. A championship game brings out a different mentality with both teams. We had to get this first one and it was a great team effort. Guys stepped up throughout our lineup and had some big at bats.”

       MRA – which has all of its five key players back who missed some games this season due to injuries – couldn’t produce enough offense against Griffin. Lipscomb had four hits – a triple, a double and two singles – and two RBIs from his leadoff position. Junior leftfielder Ty Creek, batting ninth, had two hits and scored one run.

       MRA senior right-hander and Ole Miss signee Jackson Evers pitched well until giving up three runs in the sixth inning. He allowed seven hits and six runs with eight strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings.

       “Jackson pitched well, and Kaleb and Ty had six hits between them, but Griffin stymied the rest of our offense,” said MRA coach Allen Pavette, who won state titles in 2012 and 2016. “We had some opportunities early but didn’t take advantage of them. Jackson Prep did a great job of capitalizing on their opportunities. Today is a new day and we will see what we can do tonight.”