High School Sports

Harrison Central embracing target on its back ahead of title defense

The Harrison Central Red Rebelettes celebrate with the Class 6A trophy after beating South Panola on May 13, 2016, at the MHSAA Fast-Pitch Softball State Championships at Freedom Ridge Park in Ridgeland. HCHS opens the MHSAA playoffs Tuesday against George County in a best-of-three second-round series.
The Harrison Central Red Rebelettes celebrate with the Class 6A trophy after beating South Panola on May 13, 2016, at the MHSAA Fast-Pitch Softball State Championships at Freedom Ridge Park in Ridgeland. HCHS opens the MHSAA playoffs Tuesday against George County in a best-of-three second-round series. Special to the Sun Herald file

When you’ve won three straight state championships, you kind of expect to have a target on your back. At this point, being the lead dog is nothing new for Harrison Central’s softball team.

Following their first-round bye, the Red Rebelettes will put their streak on the line this week when they open the MHSAA Class 6A playoffs against a well-rounded and motivated George County squad.

The second round matchup opens Tuesday in Lucedale at 7 p.m. The best-of-three series will head to Lyman on Thursday with a 6 p.m. start.

“I don’t think the pressure is going to be a huge factor,” HCHS coach Jimmy Parker said. “Yeah, there’s a target there, but I’d rather be the team with the target than the team chasing the target.

“I understand where everybody is at. I know everybody is going to give you their best this time of year.”

HCHS earned a first round bye but didn’t exactly take last week off. Just the opposite. The Red Rebelettes (23-3) played at Class 5A contenders Picayune and West Harrison, and hosted Class 3A power St. Patrick, sweeping the opposition with a trio of one-run victories.

Parker believes the close contests will help his team in the long run.

“You hope so. That’s why you schedule all those people,” he said. “If you have a lot of blowouts, then when you get in a close game sometimes they don’t handle it well.”

Harrison Central enters the playoffs hitting .346 as a team with a whopping 91 stolen bases.

Junior Kristen Cade headlines a pitching staff that also includes sophomore Juli Evans and eighth-grader Melina Seifert. The trio have a combined 1.44 ERA with 150 strikeouts and 33 walks in 160 2/3 innings.

Ready for a ‘battle’

GCHS (17-9) dominated Terry with a 16-0 and 16-1 sweep to open the 6A playoffs last weekend. They were the latest in a long schedule that featured convincing victories for the Rebels. Coach Keith Essary said everything his team has done this year has been aimed at this week’s series and, what they hope is, a prolonged run through the playoffs.

“When it’s all said and done, whether it’s in the third round, second round or South State, we know we have to beat the best team and Harrison Central is the three-time defending state champion,” Essary said. “We know it’s going to be a battle. We’re going to have our girls prepared and focused.

“We’ve prepared for this all year and I think we’re ready.”

Both coaches touted the other’s well-rounded lineup.

“When you go to George County it’s a great atmosphere and you’re going to have to play your best. That’s just from experience. This time of year they’ll always get up and play hard,” Parker said. “They don’t make a lot of mistakes on defense. They’re not going to beat themselves. And of course they can really swing it — everyone I’ve talked to about them says that.”

GCHS enters the series hitting .353 with 67 extra-base hits. Four regulars — Kaitlyn Passeau, Neely McLeod, Megan Morse and Brooklyn Tanner — are all hitting .400 or better.

More series

Here are the rest of South Mississippi’s second round matchups:

Class 6A: Petal/St. Martin; Ocean Springs/Hancock; Gulfport/Brandon

Class 5A: Stone/Wayne County; West Harrison/Picayune; Pearl River Central/Long Beach

Class 4A: East Central/Purvis; Pass Christian/North Pike

Class 3A: St. Patrick/Franklin County

Class 2A: Our Lady Academy/Union winner vs. Lake

Class 1A: Resurrection/Salem

Patrick Ochs: 228-896-2321, @PatrickOchs

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