Photo by Hays Collins

By Robert Wilson

       FLOWOOD – Presbyterian Christian School coach Jarrett Hoffpauir’s plan to save ace sophomore pitcher Bankston Walters until Game 2 and not face Jackson Prep senior pitcher Konnor Griffin – the No. 1 high school player in the country – in Game 1 of the MAIS Class 6A championship series fell three outs short of working.

       Instead, Prep – the No. 4 ranked team in the country and six-time defending state champion – scored two runs with no outs in the bottom of the seventh inning to pull out a 3-2 victory before an estimated 1,100 here at Prep’s Patriot Field.

       Courtesy runner Nolan Canoy scored on a wild pitch for the winning run to set off a celebration for Prep.

       Just moments earlier, the Prep faithful were possibly looking at going down 1-0 in the championship with PCS’ star Walters pitching on his home field.

       PCS scored a run in the top of the seventh inning off Griffin – right fielder Jacob Baugh hit a single to score pitcher-designated hitter Tyner Flynt – and Griffin was replaced with two outs and runners on first and second by junior reliever Reid “Spicy” Vineyard. Vineyard – who has an 0.82 ERA this season – struck out third baseman Drew Diamond to end the threat and PCS went into the bottom of the seventh needing only three outs to pull off the upset.

       But Prep’s first hitter – junior designated hitter Cole Gideon – hit a fly ball to left field and it fell in for a double. Then junior first baseman Matthew “Ham” McKinley hit a single to right field and junior right fielder Gardner Young walked to load the bases. Junior second baseman Christopher Maddux hit a grounder to senior shortstop Turner Vance, who threw home, but Gideon beat the throw to tie the game at 2-2. Prep junior catcher Thomas Cross was the plate when Canoy scored the winning run on a wild pitch.

       “I’m so proud of our guys finding a way to win,” said Prep coach Brent Heavener, who has won a state championship every year he has been a head coach at Prep except covid year of 2020. “It’s not easy in a championship series. We just found a way to compete at the end and win again. It’s not how you draw it up but sometimes you just have to find a way to win.

“Our guys just said in the dugout we’re not going to lose. Let’s find a way to win the game.”

“To win big games, it usually has to be a complete team effort and that’s exactly how it was tonight,” Griffin said. “Cole came up big after having a home run taken away from him in the first inning. He had to flush it and wait on his next opportunity, and he did just that with the leadoff double in the seventh inning.

       “This team just seems to find a way. It’s a great feeling to give everything that I have for these guys and know that there’s no quit in them. We don’t win the game tonight if we had quit fighting. Everyone did their part in sticking with the process.” 

       “We knew we had to play our best to have a chance,” said Hoffpauir, a former Southern Miss star who is in his third season at PCS. “We gave ourselves that chance and just couldn’t shut the door. It’s a tough one.”

       No. 1 seed Prep improved to 38-3. No. 2 seed PCS dropped to 22-10 and 0-4 against Prep. The two teams play Wednesday at 6 p.m. at PCS in Hattiesburg. Game 3, if necessary, is scheduled for Thursday at 6 p.m. at Prep.

       The probable starters are the left-handed Walters (an 8-2 record and 2.07 earned run average) and Prep junior left-hander Gardner Young (9-1, 2.93 ERA) for Game 2.

       PCS pitchers – junior left-hander Tyner Flynt and sophomore right-hander Seth Hataway – combined to allow only two hits and no runs in the first five innings. But Griffin walked and stole second base – his third of the game and school record 82nd of the season – and went to third on a fly out and scored on a ground out to tie the game at 1-1 in the bottom of the sixth. It was Griffin’s 73rd run this season, a school record and the most in the country, according to MaxPreps.

       “Flynt and Hataway gave us everything we needed to win,” Hoffpauir said. “Our defense played as good as we can play for the first six innings. We left some runners in scoring position a few innings that you hope to score, but I tip my hat to Griffin. He shut down some innings for them when we were threatening. He’s a heck of a competitor.”

       Griffin – projected as the No. 6 pick in the Major League Baseball draft in July by ESPN – allowed six hits and two runs with nine strikeouts and four walks in his 6 2/3 innings. He was one out short to getting his 11th victory of the season without a loss. He now has a 0.72 earned run average with 107 strikeouts in 67 2/3 innings this season, an average of 1.6 strikeouts per inning.

       Griffin threw a season-high 113 pitches.

       “Konnor pitched his guts out,” Heavener said. “He was able to get out of a couple of jams. He struck out nine and gave us everything he had. Reed came in and got them out when we needed it.”

       “Reid stepped up big again,” Griffin said. “I wanted the ball in the seventh inning and had no idea what my pitch count was. I felt good. It was my last time to pitch at Patriot Field, so I wanted to finish the game. After they scored the go ahead run in the top of the seventh, we needed to go to Reid, and he did exactly what he’s done all year long. Someone is going to get a guy at the college level who just finds a way to get people out. He’s been so good for us.”

       Now, PCS must somehow flush the emotions of Game 1 and focus on winning Game 2.

       “We will just have to regroup and get ready for tomorrow,” Hoffpauir said. “It’s a three-game series for a reason.”

       “PCS played a great game tonight,” Heavener said. “And they gave us everything they had. I know they’ll be ready to go tomorrow, and Game 2 should be another great game. Hoffpauir is doing an unbelievable job there and he is a great coach.”

       If Prep wins Wednesday, this would have been Griffin’s last game to play on Prep’s home field.

       Said Griffin: “If that’s my last time playing at Patriot Field, I just want people to say that I played the game the right way and hopefully they will know that it has always been my goal to represent God, my family, Jackson Prep and this entire state the most humble way I could.”