PONTOTOC- The Pontotoc Warriors lost two low-scoring games to the Ripley Tigers in round two of the MHSAA 2-4A playoffs last week, 3-1 at Ripley on May 6, and 4-3 at home on May 7, thus ending their 2021 campaign.
After storms delayed the start of the game by half an hour, the Pontotoc Warriors scrapped tough but couldn't overcome the Tigers in a tightly fought pitching duel. The two teams recorded a total of 16 strikeouts in the game, (10 for Ripley; six for Pontotoc) while managing 11 hits between them, including a solo homer for each side.
Brice Deaton was on the hill for the Tribe. He went he distance, allowing four runs on seven hits.
Pontotoc came out swinging, with singles from Ty Clayton and Walt Gardner to start the contest, but a 5-4-3 double play, kicked-off by Tiger short-stop Hayden Fortune, helped squelch the Warrior threat.
Pontotoc senior third-baseman Tucker Campbell showed his range when Ripley's leadoff hitter attempted a bunt. Campbell charged, barehanded the ball and fired to first for an out. Campbell immediately made good on another chance, fielding a hard-hit grounder and firing across the diamond for the second out. Pontotoc's fortunes turned, however, when Fortune followed with a two-out, solo homer off Warrior starter Brice Deaton to give Ripley the early lead. Campbell completed the defensive trifecta at third, making another sang and throw to get the Tribe out of the inning.
The Warrior defense shined again in the bottom of the second, as short-stop Corbyn Clayton made a nifty grab, fired across the diamond, and first-baseman Jon Robert Carnes made a saving dig on the throw in the dirt to complete the out. Centerfielder Ty Clayton made an outstanding running catch on a shallow-hit fly to help the Tribe out of the inning.
Ty Clayton beat-out an infield hit to start the Warrior third. Deaton worked a hard-earned walk, but the Tribe failed to score.
Corbyn Clayton turned in another defensive gem in the bottom of the frame, snatching a backhand and firing across the diamond for the out. Ripley's Jak Ketchum laced a hard-hit liner to right that proved troublesome on the slippery grass and he advanced all the way to third. Deaton eventually faced the bases loaded with two outs when he struck out a hitter with a great combination of fastballs low-and-away combined with off-speed pitches to get out of the inning.
Warrior second-baseman Ethan Ball made an outstanding catch in the bottom of the fourth, drifting from his position into shallow right to snag a popup, over his shoulder, along the foul line.
Ripley had two runners on, in the bottom of the fifth, when a Warrior error allowed the second Tiger run to score. An RBI-sacrifice fly from Conner Graves gave Ripley a 3-0.
Jon Robert Carnes smashed the first pitch thrown in the top of the sixth, nailing a solo homer to left-center to get the Warriors on the board. A walk to senior Eli Harlow followed by a double to left-center by Hayden Kyle put runners at second and third with two out for Pontotoc, but the Warriors failed to score again.
Ty Clayton made another outstanding catch in centerfield, charging in and snagging a shallow fly on a dead run for the first out of the inning. The Tigers hung on for the 3-1 win.
Ty Long got the win for Ripley, allowing one run on four hits.
Warrior starter Jon Robert Carnes was dominant through five innings at home in The Hollow, but a late surge from the Tigers gave them just enough of an edge to advance into the next round.
Carnes was nearly unhittable early, backed by strong play from his defense. Warrior centerfielder Ty Clayton set the tone early, charging in on a shallow fly and making a diving catch for the game's first out. Carnes carved-up the two-hole hitter for the Tigers on three pitches, and fanned the next hitter as well.
Clayton setup the Warriors' first run by drawing a leadoff, four-pitch walk from Tiger starter Micah Johnston. Walt Gardner moved Clayton over by rolling out to second then Carnes cracked an RBI double into the left-center gap for a 1-0 lead.
The Warriors had runners on the corners with one out when senior catcher Eli Harlow singled to plate Brice Deaton, who reached on a walk. Harlow's fellow senior, third-baseman Tucker Campbell, laced an opposite-field single to plate pinch runner Braxton Whiteside and the Tribe led 3-0 at the end of one.
The Warrior defense shinned again in the top of the third as short-stop Corbyn Clayton fielded a grounder deep in the hole and fired a laser across the diamond to get the Tiger hitter by a step. Right-fielder Gardner made a long run to track down a towering popup in foul ground to pick up his pitcher and help get the Tribe out of the inning.
Carnes and Harlow each singled again in the top of third, but the Warriors were unable to score.
Gardner made another outstanding catch in right-field for the first out in the top of the fourth inning, ranging to his right and running down a liner. Ripley's Hayden Fortune followed with a homerun to right-center for the Tigers' first hit and first run.
Pontotoc designated hitter Hayden Kyle legged-out a cue-shot, infield hit to start the Warrior fourth. He then stole second, but Johnston wiggled out of the jam with a pair of strikeouts.
A leadoff single by Conner Graves in the top of the fifth setup the Tigers' second run. An error and a hit batsman loaded the bases with nobody out. Carnes got a much-needed strikeout then Campbell made a nifty play at third, throwing from his knees for an out at first, but Ripley cut the Tribe's lead to 3-2.
Clayton took the hill in relief for Pontotoc in the top of the sixth. He fanned the first hitter, but a pair of homers in the inning, including Fortune's second of the game, followed by a dinger from Graves, put Ripley on top to stay.
Carnes surrendered two runs on two hits over five innings, striking out four and issuing no free passes. Clayton took the loss, giving up two runs on two hits and fanning four over two innings.
Johnston went the distance for Ripley, allowing three runs on eight hits and striking out four.
The Warriors finished the 2021 season 16-14.
Coach Josh Dowdy was proud of his players and the season the Warriors had.
"We had a lot of question marks coming into this season, figuring out where all the puzzle pieces fit, especially after missing last year due to COVID," said Dowdy. The previous years' Warrior squad had eight seniors returning, and potentially could have made a run at a state championship, Dowdy said. This year's team was young, with only seniors Eli Harlow and Tucker Campbell suiting up. The duo played well. "They really contributed, and we're going to miss them," said Dowdy. Injuries at key positions, including short-stop, necessitated fielding even younger players.
"In some ways, we were starting over this year, and we wanted to make sure these young guys learned how to win," said Dowdy. "We're very proud of the way they performed. They worked hard and did everything we asked them to do."
According to Dowdy, 2021 marked the forty-sixth straight year in which Pontotoc had a winning season. The Warriors finished the regular season 14-12. Advancing into the second round of the playoffs with such a young squad garnered the Tribe invaluable experience, Dowdy said. "We're returning a lot of guys next year, and all our pitching," said Dowdy. That includes Jon Robert Carnes, who will be a junior next year. In 47 innings pitched this season, Carnes struck out 74 and walked only 18, earning a 2.79 ERA. Also returning will be All-Division selections Brice Deaton and Walt Gardner, both of whom look forward to their senior campaigns.
Expectations will be high in 2022, Dowdy said. "I've asked people to be patient with us, because the talent is coming, and Warrior baseball has always been here. The tank is full."