Oak Grove’s Mack Pickering put a shot into Blake Johnson’s final pitch, driving it into the right-center gap.
Dillon Brown took off in a sprint to his left like he has so many other times.
But Monday night was different.
Brown pulled up, waved off the right fielder and snatched the tumbling ball from the sticky South Mississippi night air, clinching Gulfport’s 6-2 victory over the Warriors in Game 3 of the Class 6A South State Series.
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Not only did the play send Gulfport’s left field student section spilling onto the field, it also sent the Gridiron Admirals to their first state championship series since 2005.
“As soon as it went up and I saw Dillon was under it, I was like, ‘this is it. Thank the Lord,” said Johnson, who threw his glove into the air and grabbed hold of the closest Admiral, shortstop Gabe Lacy.
The four-run win was a big one for the Admirals (32-4), who led late Oak Grove (29-6) in Game 2 on Saturday only to come up just short.
“We had put the loss behind us before we even got on the bus,” Brown said. “We knew they were going to have to come to our house and we were going to bring it.”
Slick-fielding second baseman Castor Lee got the offense started in the first with a solo homer over the left field wall. The Warriors tied the game 1-1 in the third on a sacrifice fly by Southern Miss signee Drew Boyd, but the Admirals quickly responded. Ethan Saucier and Patrick Nelms each singled in runs and then Dylan Ladner hit a home run over the center field wall. The Warriors’ outfielder took a several steps toward the ball and then just watched it sail out of play.
“I don’t even really remember it,” Ladner said of his home run, which pushed GHS ahead 5-1. “I just remember enjoying the feeling whenever I touched home plate. It was amazing.”
Oak Grove continued to threaten, loading the bases in each of the fourth, fifth and sixth innings only to come away with one run.
“To be honest with you in this game I thought it would take seven or eight runs, just watching us two play. They can swing the bat. We did a great job on the mound against them,” said coach Jamie McMahon, who used starter Holden McHugh and relievers Jacob Roberts and Dylan Ladner before turning the game over to Johnson. “I know they had bases loaded three or four times and we got out of it with minimal damage. That’s big for us. That’s what we do. We can play some defense and turn some double plays.”
Johnson pushed GHS ahead 6-1 in the fifth with a double to left-center. After Oak Grove struck back in the sixth on a Hayes Maples single and then loaded the bases once more, McMahon had seen enough.
Johnson entered the game with two outs and promptly blew three pitches past Kris Jones, who had been swinging a hot bat in the series. Johnson, Gulfport’s ace and Game 1 starter, walked the leadoff batter in the seventh but recorded a ground ball, strikeout and then Brown’s grab in center for the series clincher.
“When I went out there, he was like ‘I’m coming in.’ The decision was easy,” McMahon said of Johnson. “He wants the game in his hands and is a bulldog when he gets out there. He’s a special player.”
McMahon called McHugh’s four-inning start “outstanding.”
“Even this morning was debating between a couple different guys, but I thought matchup-wise he was the best matchup,” McMahon said of McHugh. “I texted him and asked if he wanted the ball. He said ‘yessir.’ He was unbelievable.”
Thirty minutes after making the final out, Brown still had a tight grip on the ball.
“Seeing this fan base, keep being electric. They were with us all year. It means a lot. Finally paid off,” he said. “This belongs to the fans just as much as it does the players. It belongs to the whole school, whole program.”
Now the Admirals will turn their attention to Trustmark Park in Pearl, where they’ll face North State champion Tupelo (24-9). Game 1 is set for a 7 p.m. start Wednesday. The Admirals and Golden Wave will play Game 2 at 4 p.m. Thursday.