This was supposed to be the Pontotoc Warriors' year. Then COVID-19 happened.
The worldwide outbreak of the novel coronavirus has put a stop to organized sports nationwide at all levels of competition. The Mississippi High School Activities Association has suspended competition and practice until April 17, as Governor Tate Reeves has ordered all schools closed until that time. On Sunday, March 29, President Donald Trump announced that he is extending his guidance on reducing spread of the virus until April 30.
Pontotoc reached the 4A North Half baseball finals last season, falling to New Hope in two games. The Trojans then went on to defeat Sumrall to win the state championship. With the majority of their team returning, the Warriors came into the season determined to take it one step farther and get to Trustmark Park, site of the state title series.
The Warriors were a little inconsistent in early season action, starting 2-3 against a tough schedule that included games against North Pontotoc, Houston, Nettleton, New Albany and Ripley. On March 7 Pontotoc hosted Hatley in the 'Hollow' and won 16-9, cranking out 14 hits. The next week was spring break, and they played three games in the Booneville Tournament. The Warriors went 3-0, defeating Harding Academy 6-2, Tishomingo County 7-1 and Booneville 5-0. PHS was especially strong on the mound, allowing only 3 runs in three games behind complete game outings from Miles Galloway, Brice Deaton and Jon Robert Carnes. That extended their win streak to 4 and their overall record to 6-3. They have not taken the field since.
"We had started playing really well. I thought we played really well during spring break," said third-year head coach Josh Dowdy. "We had won four in a row, and we were getting ready to start our division run coming back after spring break."
The Warriors are a senior-laden bunch, one of the reasons for this season's lofty goals. They have eight seniors players- Galloway, Caleb Hobson, Ross Mathews, Reed Emison, Peeko Townsend, Carsen Dallas, Ethan Carnes and Whit Franklin- as well as a senior manager in Austin Tzib.
"We have a veteran ball club," Dowdy said. "This is a big group of seniors who I inherited as sophomores. We had high expectations. I know they are sitting at home hurting that they are not getting to play.
"But they understand that baseball is secondary to a lot of things. It's a game we get to play, and it's a privilege to play. We preach every day God first, family second and baseball third. We send out messages every day as a coaching staff telling them to keep their heads up and be positive. I think we have handled it really well. It's hard to me to put myself in their shoes because it is their senior years.
"When I took this job I told these seniors, that, classes before you are going to lay the foundation, but you are going to put in the walls. Even if they do not get to play again, they have done that. They played for a North Half championship, have won a lot of games as a group and have set the bar high. We tell them all the time to play this game like it is your last, because you really never know. This has put that into perspective for the younger guys on the teams coming up."
Townsend and Hobson have both committed to Northwest Community College, but for much of the rest of the senior class whether the MHSAA can put any sort of a conclusion to the season together represents perhaps the last chance at organized baseball.
"It also hurts me as a coach because we have some seniors who I think were going to have big senior years and possibly would have gotten the opportunity to go to college and play," Dowdy said.
Dowdy definitely would like to be competing on the diamond, but more than that he misses the day to day interactions with his players.
"I've been blessed to be a part of two state championships at two different schools," Dowdy said. "My biggest goal though is to bring a state championship to Pontotoc High School, my alma mater, and I really feel like we had a chance to do that this year. I was more excited coming into this year than I have ever been.
"It's the kids we have here that keep me fired up. Now as coaches we are just sitting here with our hands tied, not being able to see them or conduct a practice. Every season I am with them more than I am with my own kids. Not being able to be a part of their lives, not being able to be that mentor to them on the field and off the field, that's what hurts me more than not playing games on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays."
The rest of the season is not officially over yet, even though resumption of school seems more and more unlikely. Dowdy said the MHSAA, Executive Director Don Hinton and his team are going to do everything possible to get student athletes back on the field in some format if the current public health crises improves to allow it.
"We've pleaded our case as coaches that...baseball should be played in the summer anyway, let us play in the summer if at all possible," Dowdy said.