SMITHVILLE – Smithville senior Grant Johnson hadn’t taken the mound in nearly three weeks, since the first round of the playoffs, as he battled an injury.
That didn’t matter on Sunday afternoon as Johnson threw a complete-game shutout to help lift the Seminoles (25-4-1) to a 3-0 victory and a series win over Tupelo Christian Prep to clinch their trip to the Class 1A state finals against Nanih Waiya.
It’s the third trip to state in four years for the Noles, who will be aiming for their second title after winning it all in 2014.
“I just tried to throw strikes today and let my defense work behind me,” said Johnson, an ICC signee. “I didn’t feel rusty. When we split last night, I wasn’t thinking about pitching at first, but I knew I had one last chance to pitch at home and really wanted it. It means everything to win this game. They beat us last year, and we wanted it this year.”
Johnson scattered five hits, walked four (one intentional) and struck out three.
“He came in there and threw a gem today,” Smithville coach Jamie Russell said. “It was a gutsy performance. He stepped up like a senior is supposed to and did it. We backed him up. We didn’t hit it great, but we got enough runs to win it. It was just another team effort.”
The Noles had their opportunities to score early in the game. In the second inning, Jared Johnson and Will McNeese each drew walks, and Aubrey Cox and Dustin Moffett were robbed of hits by diving catches in left.
They stranded the bases loaded in the third after walks to Heath Noe and Wesley Grier and Chris Lockhart reaching on an error but finally broke through in the bottom of the fourth.
McNeese was hit by a pitch leading off, and a base hit by Cox put the first two on. Dustin Moffett put the Noles on the board with a line-drive RBI single to left and two batters later, Grier followed him with an RBI single of his own.
Smithville threatened again in the fifth with back-to-back one out hits by Peyton Blair and McNeese but added an insurance run in the sixth. Noe singled to left leading off, and Stuart Coggins picked up the RBI with a double to the wall in right center to make it 3-0.
Noe’s leadoff hit made him 5 for 9 in the series.
“Once we get through our lineup a couple of times, everyone starts seeing the ball and hitting,” Noe said. “We’re not ever out of a game, but that’s just us. That’s how we’ve always been. After last night, everyone was mad and wanted to be out there. We couldn’t let them beat us again on our field like last year.”
The first run was all Johnson would need as he worked out of a couple situations with runners on. The Eagles even threatened in the final two innings, but twice Johnson grabbed key strikeouts, and the final out was made by a grounder hit to Lockhart at third base.
“Everyone was frustrated after last night, but we just tried to be positive today. This is a great group of seniors,” Russell said. “I’ve been lucky to come in here and be a part of it. They’ve had some experience in the playoffs, and now we have to go get two more.”
Game 2: TCPS grabs walkoff win
The move to intentionally walk TCPS’s John Mark Jolly in the bottom of the seventh didn’t pay off for the Noles as Easton Hood ended up hitting a walkoff RBI single for a 3-2 Eagles’ win and to split the series at 1-1.
“It’s the benefit of being at home and getting the last at bat,” TCPS coach Will Lowrey said. “We don’t take that lightly at all. You have to credit both pitchers because it was a well-played game. We missed opportunities as they did as well.”
TCPS grabbed the 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first on an error on infield single by Kamryn Randolph, an error on a bunt by Cade Hall and a sac fly by John Mark Jolly.
Jolly was the star on the mound for the Eagles as he kept Smithville off the board until the sixth inning.
The Noles stranded the bases loaded three times against Jolly, who struck out 10 and scattered five hits but eventually took a no decision.
Smithville tied the game in the sixth when Peyton Blair led off with a double and a walk to Aubrey Cox and an infield single to Dustin Moffett loaded the bases. Heath Noe brought home the run with an infield single to second base, his second hit of the game after a fifth-inning double, and Stuart Coggins drew a bases-loaded walk.
The Eagles stayed off the board for five innings, thanks to a combined effort on the mound by Blayde Scott and Noe but came through in the bottom of the seventh.
Randolph led off with his third hit of the game, a bunt single and with two outs, Jolly was intentionally walked. Hood came through with the game-winning hit into right field.
In the top of the seventh, Smithville put two on when Jared Johnson was hit by a pitch and Cox singled, but were unable to score.
“We had opportunities, and their kid (Jolly) threw a great game,” Smithville coach Jamie Russell said. “We didn’t take advantage when we should have.”
Game 1: Lockhart shines on the mound
Smithville senior Chris Lockhart wasn’t ready for the baseball season to end. He held Tupelo Christian Prep to one run through six innings on the mound and then made the final out from third base.
While Lockhart was keeping the Eagles in check, the Noles were scoring five runs to take a 5-1 win in the first game of the North half finals on Thursday night in Smithville.
The Eagles got their first baserunner when Heath Noe’s throw from deep in the hole at shortstop pulled first baseman Stuart Coggins off the bag. After Kamryn Randolph stole second with two out, John Mark Jolly was intentionally walked, and Lockhart got out of the inning with a popup to short.
The Noles took the lead for good in the bottom of the first. Noe lead off with a bunt single, and Wesley Grier drew a walk. Two outs later, Jared Johnson slammed a double off the left center wall for two RBI and a 2-0 lead.
After two quick outs in the third, Johnson drew a walk, and TCPS coach Will Lowrey made a move, sending freshman Houston Collier to the mound. Peyton Blair and Blayde Scott greeted him with base hits, and Johnson scored from second when the left fielder had trouble fielding the ball.
A walk and two singles plated a TCPS run, and the Eagles had a runner at third when Noe went deep in the hole at short for the third out.
The Noles added a couple of insurance runs in the bottom of the sixth with a walk and two hits. Aubrey Cox walked with one out, and Dustin Moffett singled to left. Noe slapped a line drive to center field, and both Cox and Moffett raced home. When the centerfielder let the ball roll past him, Noe advanced to third. Coggins was intentionally walked, but a strikeout ended prevented further damage.
When Lockhart walked the leadoff batter in the top of the seventh, Smithville coach Jamie Russell made his way to the mound.
“I was hoping to go the distance,” Lockhart said. “But my arm was getting tired, and Coach Russell made the change.”
Noe struck out the first two Eagles he faced, but the next batter smashed a ground ball down the third base line. Lockhart made a back-handed grab and threw to Coggins at first to end the game.
“Chris battled on the mound and gave us a chance,” Russell said. “We had good pitching, good hitting and good defense.”