Defending Class 5A state champion East Central kept its hopes of a repeat live at home in Hurley Saturday night.
The home-standing Hornets held off a scrappy bunch from Picayune 5-1, in the third and deciding game of that best-of-three Southe State semifinal series before a large and vocal crowd. The win thrusts East Central, now 24-9 this year under the guidance of veteran head coach Bo Long, into the Class 5A South State finals for the second consecutive season where the Hornets will face either Region 8-5A rival Vancleave or Region 6-5A champ West Jones.
That series is currently knotted up at 1-1 after a Bulldog win Saturday night, and is scheduled to be completed Monday night with the next round slated to start on Tuesday night in Hurley.
Picayune, which finishes the season at 17-15 on the year and as the Region 7-5a champs, was attempting to reach the South State finals round for the first time in 10 years, since 2013. And the Maroon Tide held strong with the defending champs throughout most of the game.
East Central took a 1-0 lead in the third frame, when Nate Trochessett bounced into a double play that scored T.J. Dunsford.
Picayune bounced back, though and knotted things up at 1-1 in the top of the fifth when Jamie Lumpkin cracked an RBI-double with one out that plated Parker Helton and resulted in runners on second and third.
But, in what turned out to be a very key sequence in the contest, Long replaced Hornet starting pitcher Brayson Owenby with normal stater/turned reliever Eli Smith who had a disastrous outing Friday on the road in Picayune. But Smith was the right choice at the right time a day later, as he coaxed a ground out and a strike out sandwiched between an intentional walk to keep the Tide at bay and hold the game even at 1-1.
His Hornet teammates rewarded Smith one inning later, by breaking the game open with four runs in the bottom of the sixth.
Trochessett and Andrew Marble started the stanza off reaching base on singles, then Anthony Tanner’s hard-hit ground ball was misplayed by the Maroon Tide and made it 2-1 ECHS as Trochessett scored. Three batters later, Brandt Dickerson delivered the fatal blow to Picayune when his single up the middle scored Marble and then a throwing error by the Maroon Tide allowed Tanner to scamper home to make it 4-1.
Carson Ryder’s RBI-single then made it 5-1 as the home crowd began celebrating and making plans for the South State finals.
Smith then sat down the Maroon Tide in the top of the seventh without any issues and clinched the Hornet win.
Ryder, Dunsford and Trochessett each collected two hits apiece to pace th ECHS winning 10-hit attack. Dickerson’s two runs batted in were a game-high.
Smith experienced two very opposite experiences in a 24-hour span. He started and picked up the loss on the road Friday, not even making it out of the top of the first frame. But on Saturday night, when called upon at the most crucial time of the season for the defending state champs, he shined bright like a diamond with almost three perfect innings of work in relief as he allowed no runs, no hits and struck out four in picking up the win.
Picayune managed just three hits in the losing effort all off of Owenby. Lumpkin’s run-scoring double was the biggest blow of the game by far for the Maroon Tide.
Tanner Busby, who took the loss in game one on Tuesday in an 8-1 Hornet win, also was tagged with the loss in game three despite a gallant complete game effort on the mound. Saturday marked the fourth meeting of the season between the two teams and the third ECHS win. The experienced Hornet line-up features seven senior starters, including the Southern Miss signee Dunsford as well as five others that have inked juco deals. Picayune returns its entire starting line-up next season and is also expected to get Morgan Craft back as well. Craft was a standout early in the season for the Maroon Tide before suffering a season-ending injury.