By Robert Wilson
Northwest Rankin won its 32nd game this season and 23rd in a row Sunday afternoon to advance to the MHSAA Class 6A state championship series for the second straight season.
And the Cougars won the game like they haven’t won all season.
Courtesy runner, sophomore Bryson Jones, scored on a wild pitch with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning to give Northwest Rankin a 7-6 victory over Rankin County rival Brandon in the second game of the best-of-three series to sweep the semifinal series before an estimated 2,000 at Northwest Rankin’s Jeff McClaskey Stadium in Flowood.
Northwest Rankin – ranked nationally No. 12 by Baseball America, No. 14 by MaxPreps, No. 25 by Collegiate Baseball and No. 32 by Perfect Game – is now 32-2 and plays the winner of the Desoto Central-Oxford series for the 6A state title. The first game of the best-of-three series is scheduled for Wednesday, May 25, at 7 p.m. at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Northwest Rankin lost to Madison Central for the 6A state title last season. It was the first time the Cougars had played for state championship since winning it in 2005 under Coach Jeff McClaskey. This is the second straight state title series for second-year Cougar coach KK Aldridge, who replaced McClaskey after 801 wins and 31 seasons.
Brandon finished 26-8 and lost to Northwest Rankin in all three meetings this season, 10-2 and 2-1 during the regular season and 12-7 in Game 1 Saturday night at Brandon. Brandon hasn’t been this far in the playoffs since Coach Stacy Hester took the Bulldogs to the semifinals in 2014 before losing to Oak Grove.
The game was tied 6-6 going into the bottom of the seventh. Northwest Rankin’s star two-way player – senior shortstop-pitcher and Southern Miss signee Nick Monistere – hit a one-out single. Senior catcher and Meridian Community College signee Brady Thomas hit into a fielder’s choice and Jones replaced Thomas as a courtesy runner. Jones stole second and went to third on junior right fielder and Hinds CC commitment Dawson Munzenmay’s single. Senior first baseman and Copiah-Lincoln CC signee Christian Cameron was at the plate and had a 2-1 count when a wild pitch was thrown, and Jones beat the throw to the plate.
Jones has played in 29 games and scored 28 runs. He has 18 stolen bases in 21 attempts. He is also 1 for 1 with a double at the plate.
“Coming into this game, I knew I had to give something to the seniors, and I just mainly focused on doing what I do best and that’s baserunning,” Jones said. “When that moment came in the bottom of the seventh and Brady got on, he told me, ‘you’re about to win this game.’ I just knew I had to trust my coaches and my teammates. When I was on third base, (Northwest Rankin assistant and third base coach) Coach (Conner) Douglas was talking to me and telling me to get ready for a dirt ball, then it came, and I had a good read and just took off.”
“Bryson has been big for us in the base running department all year,” said Aldridge, who was named the Priority One Bank/Mississippi Scoreboard Metro Jackson Coach of the Year last season. “I was hoping we could get him into scoring position, but also knew Brandon was going to try to keep us close at first base. Bryson was able to get a stolen base, which put him into scoring position and advanced to third on the single by Muenzenmay. Bryson takes pride in his base running and is constantly working on it during practice. He has those baseball instincts that not every player has. We usually say that if a ball kicks off the catcher and gets out of the dirt, we should score. That only happens if you do your job and anticipate. Bryson didn’t hesitate and was able to beat the pitcher to the plate. A great moment that I’m sure he will never forget.”
It was a great moment for Monistere as well. It capped off an outstanding series for him. He had six hits, including a home run and a double, and five runs batted in in the two-game series in addition to being the winning pitcher with seven strikeouts in six innings and allowing only five hits and one run in the first game. Monistere improved his batting average to .420, has 11 doubles and eight home runs with 33 runs scored and 33 RBIs. He has a 10-1 record and a 1.25 earned run average with 108 strikeouts and only 19 walks in 67 innings.
“I knew going into the last inning we were going to come through,” Monistere said. “Unfinished business has been our motto all year and we are just a bunch of guys who come into every game hungry to get that state title.
“Bryson has been clutch for us all year. He got thrown out trying to steal home earlier in the game and for him to get another chance and score the winning run was awesome.”
Junior catcher and Mississippi State commitment Jacob Keys hit a two-run home run to give Brandon a 2-0 lead in the first inning and Brandon scored another run in the second before Northwest Rankin answered with five runs in the bottom of the second inning. Keys his second home run to lead off the third inning – his team-high ninth of the season – to pull Brandon within 5-4. Northwest Rankin scored one run in the fifth to go ahead 6-4 before Brandon tied it up at 6-6 with two runs in the sixth inning on junior designated hitter Braden Smith’s solo home run and senior right fielder Kandin Williams RBI single to set up seventh.
“That was everything you want out of a South State Championship game,” Aldridge said. “Hats off to Brandon for the way they compete. Coach Best and their staff had their guys ready to compete and they played a great game. The way they competed this year was a remarkable tribute to Nathan Griffin (a Brandon baseball player who passed away last summer in a drowning accident).
“I’ve very proud of our guys. (Senior and Jones CC signee) Connor Brooks gave us 5 and 1/3 innings and worked out of some tough jams that kept us in the game. (Junior pitcher) Powell Ingram came in and did a great job in his inning and 2/3 to pick up the win. Both guys have faced some adversity and have answered the call. They’re true competitors and want the ball in their hands. Offensively, we were able to put some big hits together in the bottom of the second that allowed us to come back to take the lead after Brandon had punched us in the mouth early. I was glad to see our guys battle back like that. I thought we swung the bats well, especially off (Brandon’s 6-foot-5 sophomore left-handed pitcher and Ole Miss commitment) Walker Hooks, who is a very good pitcher for them.”
Thomas, Muenzenmay and senior third baseman and Hinds CC signee Brice Ainsworth had two hits each for Northwest Rankin. Senior shortstop and Pearl River CC signee Jonah Katsaboulas and Keys had two hits each for Brandon.