GULFPORT — Home-standing Gulfport gave Northwest Rankin 12 good reasons early in the game Tuesday night why they would dethrone the defending Class 6A state champions in the South state finals.
And turns out, the Admirals needed every one of them.
Gulfport jumped out to a 12-0 lead after three innings of play in the third and final game of the best-of-three Class 6A South State finals at Herbert Wilson Field, and then stood by and watched the Cougars rally for 11 consecutive runs of their own over the next two frames to make it 12-11 heading into the sixth stanza.
However, Admiral relief pitcher Prince Cottonham came on and shut down the Cougars over the final two-plus innings of play, and Gulfport held on for the 12-11 win and will move on to the Class 6A State Championship round starting in Pearl, Miss., at Trustmark Park next week.
It marks the second trip to the title tilt in six seasons for Gulfport, after the Admirals fell in the state finals to Tupelo in three games in 2017.
“What a special win for this program, ” veteran Gulfport head coach Jamie McMahon said. “To survive the way we did after that rally just showed the character of our players. Our hitting was so crucial early in the game that it gave us an advantage that thankfully was big enough to pull it out, and now we’re playing for a state championship.”
Gulfport got off to a quick start with five runs off of three separate NWR pitchers in the first frame. Dawson Hall had a key two-run single for the Admirals in that inning, but his biggest hit of the night was still to come. Nathan Edwards and Davis Ormes also each delivered run-scoring singles in the first, while another run registered when Rezion Barney came home on a wild pitch.
The Admirals made it 7-0 with two more runs in the second stanza, as Jacob Palazzo knocked a run-scoring double and Hall added an RBI-single for his third RBI of the game.
But again, for Hall, well, just wait and see…
Gulfport starter and Ole Miss commit Ethan Surpweic got through the first three frames against the Cougars unscathed, and Gulfport took that seven-run advantage into the bottom of the third and immediately went back to work on extending its lead. And boy, did they.
The Admirals proceeded to load the bases up with one out off of the fourth Cougar pitcher of the night. Nicholas Williams was hit by a pitch to plate a run to make it 8-0, and the left-handed hitting Hall strode to the plate for the third time in as many innings.
Hall then launched a majestic shot to dead center field that found its way over the elevated “Blue Monster” and cleared the fence into the dark Port City night for a grand slam home run that made it 12-0 and sent most of the standing-room-only crowd at The Herb in a jubilant celebration.
That would be all the celebrating that GHS supporters would do for a while, however.
The Cougars got a grand slam of their own from pinch-hitter Cruse Lloyd in the top of the fourth, as they eventually cut the lead to 12-7. Then, in the next inning, Northwest Rankin closed the gap to just one at 12-11 as Tucker Jones had a two-run double and Lloyd added an RBI also.
And suddenly, and almost inexplicably, it was a game again.
But that’s when McMahon called on the junior Cottonham in the most crucial part of the season for the Admirals. And he responded in fine fashion, working his way out of a two- on, two-out jam by inducing a ground ball to second base to end the inning.
He then allowed a double and a walk in the sixth stanza, before working his way out of it with a pair of strikeouts. And in the top of the seventh, the Cougars loaded the bases with two outs on a single, a walk and a hit-by-pitch.
Cottonham then faced Brady Saxton, and the Cougar hitter bounced a hard ground ball directly toward second base as Suroweic, now manning shortstop, dove for the ball. Suroweic surrounded the grounder and dove for second at the same time and plunked the ball down on top of the bag just before the Cougar runner slid forcefully in for the final out.
“Our kids stayed upbeat the entire time, they kept supporting one another and keeping each other in the game no matter what the score was,” McMahon added. “It wasn’t necessarily the way we as coaches would have drawn it up, but we hung in there and figured out a way to win it.”
There were several heroes for the Admirals on the evening, but none bigger than Hall. The senior first baseman, in what could have been his last game ever as an Admiral, took it upon himself to ensure that both he and his teammates would play more games as he collected a game-high four hits and a game and career-high seven runs batted in in the win. Garner and Palazzo each had a pair of hits in the winning 11-hit attack, while Surpweic, the fielding hero, added a double at the plate as well.
Cottonham, the hero on the hill, was the third and final GHS pitcher and he picked up the win after Joel Smith replaced Suroweic in the fourth frame.
Gulfport cranked out 32 hits in the three-game series against the defending state champs, and that included just five in a 7-1 road loss in Flowood Friday. In the pair of games at The Herb, the Admirals collected 27 total hits in the two wins.
McMahon and his troops will face Lewisburg in the state finals, after the Patriots swept Germantown in two games in the Class 6A North State finals.
Gulfport stands 25-12 on the season entering play in Pearl, while Lewisburg is 27-8. Friday’s loss to NWR is the only postseason blemish to this point for GHS, as it stands 8-1 in the playoffs. The Patriots went three games against Oxford in the North State semifinals, and the Region 2-6A champs are 6-1 in the postseason.
“It’s an awesome feeling, especially considering how this game went,” McMahon concluded. “We’re excited to have a chance to play for a state title. That’s always the goal when you start a season.”