West Jones’ Garrett McLaurin, above, is safe at home, as called by the umpire — and teammate Walker Thompson (11) — as South catcher Nate Conliff searches for the ball on Friday. (Photo by Mark Thornton)

Free State free-for-all in 5A?

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South, West start big series with all Jones semifinal at stake

“One game at a time” and “don’t look ahead” are mantras of coaches at every level, from youth leagues to the professional ranks. 

But fans and sports writers don’t adhere to those guidelines … which is why plenty of both were looking at the possibility of an all-Jones County showdown in the South State championship series of the Class 5A baseball playoffs next week.

“That would be wild,” one fan was overheard saying after South Jones completed a sweep of Natchez at The Reservation on Saturday.

West Jones swept the regular-season series in three hard-fought contests, 4-3, 4-1 and 5-3. That last victory was punctuated with a little fracas during the postgame congratulations. So if the rivals were to meet with a trip to the state championship at stake, it would likely be an all-out brawl on their ballfields.

But first, both teams do have to face tough opponents. So if they do look ahead and forget to take the one game at a time, there probably won’t be a Free State free-for-all finale in 5A South. 

The Braves face a familiar Hattiesburg team that has been nationally ranked for part of the season, and the Mustangs match up with powerful Pearl River Central, the only in-state 5A team to knock off the Tigers this season.

Hattiesburg ended South’s last two seasons in the playoffs, and PRC knocked West out of the postseason the last two years.

But the Mustangs are coming off a sweep of their region and a season that was highlighted by a 17-game winning streak with a roster full of talented underclassmen. Their only losses were to Hattiesburg back in early March and to 6A powerhouse Brandon in a postseason tuneup after earning a bye in the first round of the playoffs. They bounced back by knocking off 6A perennial power Oak Grove.

Junior Kris Riley is batting .317 with team-highs of four home runs, 22 RBIs and five stolen bases and sophomore Sam Hill is batting a team-best .409 with seven doubles and 18 RBIs. Juniors Dustin Dickerson (.342, 3 HRs, 21 RBIs), Colson Harris (.322, 7 doubles, 20 RBIs), Walker Thompson (.333, 17 RBIs) and Garrett McLaurin (.328, 16 RBIs) have packed a punch in the lineup. Evan Bynum (.300, 19 RBIs) and Hayden Bryan (.230, 3 HRs, 18 RBIs) are the lone seniors and have come up big in the postseason.

On the mound, Dickerson is 7-0 with a 0.39 ERA (71 Ks, 15 BBs, 3 saves), Bynum is 6-0 (40 Ks, 12 BBs), and Bryan (43 Ks, 8 BBs) and the left-hander Riley (49 Ks, 23 BBs) are both 4-0.

For the Blue Devils, seniors Eli Lee (.410, 6 doubles, 33 RBIs), Austen Izzio (.393, 10 doubles, 29 RBIs) and Caleb Tynes (.329, 19 RBIs), and junior Hayden Dunhurst (.328, 4 HRs,  22 RBIs) lead the way at the plate. They’re also aggressive on the bases, with 52 steals on 68 attempts, led by Izzio’s 15-of-19 and Tynes’ 9-of-10. The ’Stangs have only 17 steals as a team, so catcher Adam Bassett will be tested.

Right-handers Rigell Robinson (8-1, 3.02 ERA, 92 Ks, 25 BBs) and Austin Dean (6-1, 1.52 ERA, 46 Ks, 23 BBs) and lefty Blake Craft (5-2, 2.91 ERA, 27 Ks, 9 BBs) are the PRC’s top pitchers.

For the Braves, seniors Ricky Boleware (.380, 3 HRs, 20 RBIs), Bryson Sumrall (.387, 3 doubles), Max Sharp (.333, 3 doubles, 16 RBIs) and Ben Welch (.292, 4 doubles, 17 RBIs), and juniors John Mitchell (.269, 6 HRs, 15 RBIs) and Tyler Ducksworth (.279, 3 HRs, 19 RBIs) have provided plenty of pop and sophomore Mark Diers (.400) has the top average among starters.

Sharp has been the ace of the staff, going 5-2 with a 0.76 ERA (54 Ks, 19 BBs), while left-hander Boleware is 6-1 with a 4.44 ERA (36 Ks, 18 BBs) and Mitchell is 4-1 with a 3.03 ERA (27 Ks, 12 BBs).

The Tigers are led by a pair of productive seniors, Joseph Gray (.457, 5 HRs, 11 doubles, 29 RBIs) and Dexter Jordan (.395, 7 doubles, 5 triples, 36 RBIs), along with A.J. Stinson (.371, 23 RBIs) and Kameron Wells (.317, 7 doubles, 5 triples, 3 HRs 26 RBIs). The team has stolen 70 bases, led by Gray’s 15, so SJ catcher Nate Conliff will have to be on alert.

Gray is 4-0 on the mound with a 2.70 ERA (39 Ks, 20 BBs) and Wells is 3-0 with a 1.45 ERA (21 Ks, 20 BBs), but the best stats belong to Jordan (5-2, 1.40 ERA, 46 Ks, 18 BBs). Stinson is 3-3 (3.47 ERA, 47 Ks, 29 BBs).

The winner of each best-of-three series will advance to the South State championship series, and that winner will face the North winner for the 5A state championship in Pearl. Lewisburg (22-6) and Germantown (22-7), and Grenada (17-7) and Ridgeland (14-17) are still alive in the north.