PEARL — The past two defending Class 5A state champions, East Central and Saltillo, will face off for the most current gold glove in that classification here at Trustmark Park this week.
But the Hornets may have a little more on the line than do the Tigers when the best-of-three series begins Wednesday night at 7 p.m., in the home of the Mississippi Braves.
The Hornets have won three state titles on the diamond in school history, but East Central has never won back-to-back state championships and will be attempting to do just for the second time in 15 years.
East Central won its second overall state championship in Class 4A 15 years ago in 2008 in dominant fashion, sweeping two games from Vicksburg in the title tilt under current Hornet Athletic Director Gary Long. Long’s squad returned to Trustmark Park the next season once again as the South State champs, but the Hornets went three games against perennial state power West Lauderdale before falling in the third and deciding game 4-2.
In addition to last season and 2008, East Central’s first state title came in 1981.
The current Hornet squad, under the direction of veteran head coach Bo Long, is loaded with a talented and experienced senior class many of which will be playing on the next level. That class is headed up by “Class 5A Mr. Baseball” and Southern Miss signee T.J. Dunsford, a pitcher and shortstop, as well as outfielder/pitcher Eli Smith (East Central CC signee), infielder Carson Ryder (East Mississippi CC signee), outfielder/pitcher Anthony Tanner, catcher Logan Terry (Pearl River CC signee) and outfielder Brandt Dickerson (Gulf Coast CC signee) and infielder Andrew Marble (Jone County CC). The final senior in that class, outfielder/pitcher Brayson Owenby, has received offers as well but has yet to sign. Junior infielder Nate Trochessett is another key player for the Hornets, as is his classmate Haydn Porter.
The Hornets have reached the title tilt by knocking off Florence in two games (13-0, 6-4) and then going three games with both Picayune (8-1, 4-7, 5-1) and West Jones (8-0, 1-2, 10-3).
Saltillo, on the other hand, has enjoyed not only back-to-back state crowns but a “three-peat” as well, although that trifecta was celebrated quite some time ago.
The Tigers own five state championships overall, winning their first in 1965, in Class A, the same year the Biloxi Indians won the crown in Class AA.
But the heyday of Saltillo baseball came just a few years later, when the Tigers took home three consecutive crowns in 1970, 1971 and 1972 in different classifications. The 1970 title came in AA, while the next two were in BB.
The next state championship appearance for SHS came in 1998 in Class 5A when the Tigers lost to Hattiesburg. Saltillo’s next trip to the state finals was two years ago, when the Tigers knocked off Pascagoula in three games.
The Tigers met Neshoba Central in last year’s North State finals, but fell to the Rockets in three games. East Central then swept NCHS in the state finals.
Saltillo gained a measure of revenge over the Rockets this season in the first round of the North State playoffs, knocking off Neshoba Central in three games (3-0, 2-3, 3-1). The Tigers then dispatched Lafayette (12-2, 4-3) and Ridgeland (8-0, 11-3) each in two straight games to return to the Class 5A state finals for the second time in three seasons.
The Tigers have a big crew of players also headed for the juco ranks to play, as pitcher/outfielder Drake Douglas (Northeast CC signee), catcher Luke Wood (Itawamba CC signee), infielder Mason Easterling (Northeast MS CC signee), pitcher Gavin McCoy (Northwest CC signee); outfielder Jacob Brown (Coahoma CC signee) and infielder Hunter Hill (Coahoma CC signee) have all inked deals. Another top player for SHS is infielder Baylor Roberts.