POPLARVILLE, Miss. — With the postseason lurking around the corner, No. 5 Pearl River made a statement on Friday, sweeping No. 8 Northwest 11-6 and 11-5 on Sophomore Day at Dub Herring Park.
"We have the potential to be really, really good in a lot of different ways and that's what we're capable of doing. We're capable of hitting the ball like that. We're capable of playing defense like that," Hoover, Alabama, native Noah Barron said. "Coach has been preaching that all week, we just have to come out and compete every day."
With the lopsided victories, the Wildcats finish fourth in the MACJC and as a result will open the state playoffs at 6 p.m. Thursday at The Dub. The Wildcats (34-11 overall, 19-9 MACJC) will learn their opponent following Sunday's East Central-Coahoma series.
"I thought you saw two really good teams playing today. I'm very proud of how we played. They threw punches, we punched back and were able to finish the fight ahead," Pearl River coach Michael Avalon said. "I'm very proud of that. That's what you have to do in playoff baseball, what we did today.
"That's the most proud I have been of our guys all year."
Friday's sweep also marked Avalon's 100th and 101st victories at PRCC and No. 216 overall as a head coach.
The sweep was also PRCC's third straight against Northwest (31-11, 20-8).
Game 1: PRCC 11, NWCC 6
Foreshadowing a theme on Sophomore Day, the Rangers scored first but the Wildcats quickly responded. Trailing 2-0, Wiley Cleland (Columbia; Columbia Academy) helped PRCC answer in the bottom of the first, singling home Austen Izzio (Carriere; Pearl River Central) to get on the scoreboard.
Following a clean five-pitch second from starter Shemar Page (Raleigh), the Wildcats took a lead they would never relinquish.
The Wildcats sent six to the plate in the second, plating three runs. Luke Harper (Meridian; Northwest Lauderdale) jumpstarted the offense with a double to left-center that scored Kasey Donaldson (Gulfport; West Harrison). Following a Matt Taylor (Raleigh) run-scoring ground out, Harper came around to score PRCC's third run of the inning on a wild pitch.
NWCC tacked on a run in the fourth to pull within one, 4-3, but for the second time in the game Pearl River responded in a big way with a three-run fourth. Izzio singled in a run and after Taylor scored on a wild pitch — the second time PRCC scored on a wayward throw from NWCC's starter — Cleland singled in the Wildcats' third run of the frame.
Holding a 7-4 advantage, Pearl River had struggled to get to Northwest's reliever Trent Bunting— until the seventh inning. Following a couple singles from Izzio and Cleland, Dexter Jordan (Hattiesburg) blasted a three run homer over The Dub's tall left field wall. Not to be outdone, Reece Ewing (Mobile, Ala.; Faith Academy) then blasted a solo homer just to the left of the batter's eye.
"That was a big hit by Dexter and something he's done a lot. One thing we want Dexter to realize is not every big hit has to be a home run," Avalon said. "But then Reece — that was an impressive swing by Reece to hit that ball the opposite field with the power he showed."
Page did put up his usual eye popping numbers on the mound, surrendering four runs on seven hits and three walks with two strikeouts, but the Louisiana Tech signee settled into a groove during the game to improve to 8-1 on the season.
"The guy gave up two in the first and then put up zeroes to get us back in the game," Avalon said. "He did not have his best stuff today but against a really good offensive team that's what competitors do, what winners do and what Shamar does."
Jerod Meggs (Kosciusko) pitched the final two innings, surrendering two runs while also striking out two more.
PRCC's offensive outburst was a team effort as Izzio and Cleland led the team with three hits apiece while Jordan, Ewing and Donaldson each had two hits. Jordan led PRCC with three RBIs. Cleland drove in two runs. Izzio scored three times while Britt McKay (Wiggins; Ocean Springs) crossed the plate twice.
"We had Sophomore Day and had a lot of fun and that went well but then you come out and give up two runs before you can blink an eye. A lot of teams would have said here we do again but instead these guys just came out, responded and showed their toughness," Avalon said. "Baseball is a tough game. It's something as a coach I have to remember and teach them. It doesn't always go the way you want it to but you have to keep playing and trust what you do.
"Hopefully we build on this."
Game 2: PRCC 11, NWCC 5
Pearl River jumped on Northwest starter Dalton Fowler in the first inning of Game 2, loading the bases with one out. It looked like the Ranger southpaw might get out of the frame unscathed but Barron put a charge into a pitch and just missed a grand slam by about three feet. Instead, the New Orleans signee had to settle for a three-run double.
After a solo home run from the visitors in the top of the second, PRCC responded once again. This time the Wildcats loaded the bases with one out. After a deep fly to center field from Cleland easily scored PRCC's fourth run, the Wildcats executed a delayed double steal and Taylor barely slid across home plate in time to extend PRCC's lead to 5-1.
The Rangers scored one run in the third and two more in the fourth to pull within one, 5-4, but once more the Wildcats retaliated in the bottom of the fourth. Pearl River had its biggest explosion of the day, scoring six runs on Northwest's submarine reliever. Pearl River hit around in the inning, scoring two runs on a Barron single, one run on a Magruder O'Bannon (Gulfport; St. Stanislaus) double, two more runs on a Deyton Lingle (Lake) single and then a final run on a single from Taylor.
Starter Reid Reynolds (Heidelberg; Northeast Jones) improved to 5-1 on the year, striking out three and allowing four runs in four innings.
"Reid threw well again. It wasn't his best stuff, but that's a quality offense," Avalon said. "He just battles and let us play defense behind him."
Wes Star (Auburn, Ala.), Trace McNabb (Foxworth; West Marion) each got an inning in relief. Star and McNabb combined for three strikeouts in two scoreless frames.
Harper closed out the game, allowing one home run while striking out two.
"That's something we've been working on throughout the year, getting him some work here and there," Avalon said. "We just found the right time to put him out there."
Barron, the newly crowned Wildcat of the Month, continues to swing a hot bat. The New Orleans signee went 2-for-4 with a double and led PRCC with five RBIs.
"Me and (assistant coach) Drew (Labounty) have spent a lot of time in the cage and it has really helped," Barron said. "I feel really confident at the plate and in my ability right now and that's thanks to Coach Drew."
Lingle started in left and was second on the team with two hits and two RBIs. Taylor walked three times to lead the Wildcats. Izzio and Page also walked twice.
"This is big for us. This is a little momentum we started for us hopefully. Winning helps and can cure some things," Avalon said. "Every team right now is dealing with different obstacles, but winning makes dealing with those things a lot easier."
Prior to the game, the Wildcats honored its sophomore class, which is comprised of Miles Smith (Laurel; Northeast Jones), Lingle, Taylor, Cameron Havard (Columbia; Columbia Academy), Page, Harper, Reis Trager (Hurley; East Central), Barron, Cleland, Trenton Lee (Picayune), Meggs, Colin Danley (Lucedale; East Central) and O'Bannon.