POPLARVILLE, Miss. — No. 6 Pearl River's season was on the brink of ending well before the Wildcats were prepared for it to wrap up Friday. Having split the first two games of their best-of-three Region XXIII play-in series against visitor East Central, the Wildcats knew what was on the line. Despite falling behind early in Game 3, the Wildcats' pitching did enough and their bats came alive for the first time in the series to secure a 12-4 run-rule victory in seven innings at Dub Herring Park.
"Literally and figuratively we weathered the storm. When you're down in the game, 1-1 in the series and in a do or die situation, the pressure is there. A lot of credit to East Central, their team and their staff. You know they're well coached, a class act and going to be tough. I knew we would have to play well and very glad we did," Pearl River coach Michael Avalon said. "A lot of credit goes to our players who stepped up in tough situations and made plays. I think they wanted to be there and that's something that's important — wanting to be in the situation. Our pitchers wanted to be there. Our hitters wanted to be there. Winning is tough."
With the win, Pearl River (36-12 overall) advances to next week's Region XXIII Tournament at Itawamba. The tournament is scheduled to begin Wednesday.
"We've been looking forward to (this trip) and waiting on this," Avalon said. "We have some business to take care of up there and we're going to do our best to try and get to Oklahoma (for the JUCO World Series)."
The Warriors (23-23) jumped ahead 2-0 in the third after working a bases-loaded walk and scoring on a groundout. PRCC starter Colin Danley (Lucedale; East Central) avoided more damage by striking out the next Warrior to strand two in scoring position.
Desperately needing a spark, sophomore Noah Barron (Hoover, Ala.) answered the call in the fourth as he deposited a scorching two-run home run over the right field wall.
"We needed somebody to step up and make a big play for us and he did just that," Avalon said. "The home run is a big part of our game and for two games up until that point in the series we hadn't hit one."
With rain continuing to fall at The Dub, the Wildcats worked two runners into scoring position in the fifth. ECCC countered by making two pitching changes in the inning. Facing a 2-1 count, Dexter Jordan (Hattiesburg) ambushed the first pitch he saw from ECCC's second reliever and sent it through the pouring rain and over the left field wall for a three-run homer and a 5-2 advantage.
"The thing about Dexter was he had an error in the inning where we gave them two runs and for him to step up in that situation and get a big knock, that showed a lot about his character and toughness," Avalon said. "I'm proud he's on our team."
ECCC added two runs in the top of the sixth but it was all Wildcats from there on out.
After Austen Izzio (Carriere; Pearl River Central) singled in PRCC's sixth run to extend the Wildcats' lead back out to 6-2, Wiley Cleland (Columbia; Columbia Academy) clobbered a two-strike curveball over the left field wall for a three-run home run and a 9-4 lead. Three batters later Reece Ewing (Mobile, Ala.; Faith Academy) got in on the fun, delivering an ECCC pitch into the seats beyond the right field wall for another three-run homer.
"Those were big hits by Noah, Dexter, Wiley and Reece," Avalon said. "Wiley was sitting there with two strikes and the one thing I told him from the dugout was 'win, son, just win.' That's what Wiley does. He's a winner.
"I'm very proud of all those guys."
Ewing and Barron led PRCC with two hits apiece. Shemar Page (Raleigh) walked four times and scored a team-high three times.
ON THE MOUND
The pitchers Friday had arguably the most difficult job as not only were they staring down the opposing batters but also having to battle the elements.
Danley earned the win to improve to 8-3 on the year. The sophomore right-hander allowed four runs (two earned) on three hits and three walks. He also struck out a game-high five in 5 2/3.
"I'm super proud of Colin. The only way he performs like that is being all in, picking up his teammates and his teammates picking him up. I'm very proud of him," Avalon said. "That's a special moment to see him grow like that and see him come along as he has the last two years."
Danley said he woke up especially early to prepare for the start. Originally scheduled for 4 p.m., the game was moved up to 10:30 a.m. to avoid impending weather. While the Wildcats and Warriors most likely avoided the worst of Friday's weather, the game's playing conditions were anything but favorable.
"I knew it was going to be nasty today," said Danley, who didn't allow a hit until the third inning. "It seemed like every time we would go out to pitch it would start storming and every time we would come in to hit it would stop. You face adversity and you just have to handle it. I was blessed to only give up four runs."