When Seth Smith first arrived as the football coach at East Central in 2012, he remembers only having one or two players who also suited up for the baseball team.
When the Hornets’ baseball squad took the field Thursday night against Pascagoula in Hurley, the first six men in the batting order all played key roles while leading East Central to its first Class 4A South State football title this past season.
“We didn’t care if you played chess. If you wanted to come play football, we were willing to work with you,” Smith said, recalling his first year at East Central. “It’s evolved over time. I think the first year we had one or two. Now, it’s grown to where we have 10 of them that play baseball in addition to six or seven that play in the ninth grade.”
East Central has long been labeled as a strong baseball school that only occasionally produces competitive football teams. ECHS has yet to win a football state title, but it features a pair of baseball championships — 1981 and 2008.
Following a 13-1 season in football, it’s not so easy to simply look at the Jackson County school as a baseball haven.
“It’s a little bit of a mix of both,” East Central junior Branson Davis said. “We’ll show ‘em what we can do in baseball.”
East Central is off to a 3-2 start to the season that includes a pair of wins over perennial Class 6A contender Ocean Springs.
While the football players were a little behind on reps when they joined the baseball team for preparations for the 2018 season, East Central baseball coach Bo Long likes how they’ve balanced both sports.
“This group works so hard,” he said. “The guys that play two sports came right over and mixed right in. They picked it right up and went with it.”
Davis is among the Hornets who are two-sport stars. He plays linebacker and boots 50-yard field goals for the football team. As a baseball player, he catches, plays outfield and also fills in at designated hitter.
The battery for Thursday night’s game featured junior linebacker/pitcher Avery White and senior fullback/catcher Louis Morgan.
Junior Cameron Gray, a speedy wingback for the football team, hit leadoff and played centerfield.
Mississippi State football signee Brad Cumbest, a star senior tight end, swings a big bat at cleanup and also pitches. He picked up a complete-game victory at Ocean Springs on Feb. 23.
Junior cornerback Trenton Baldock hit second in the order Thursday and played third base.
Senior quarterback Rylee Brown, a Pearl River Community College signee for football, played second base.
Pascagoula handed East Central its first loss of the season Thursday night, 8-4, but Long noted that his team handled the setback with ease.
“This team seems to be a real close knit group,” Long said. “They all seem to get along real well, work hard together and have a lot of fun. When we have a tough practice, they find something to laugh about or enjoy themselves.
“Look at them. They just got skull drug (by Pascagoula) and they’re laughing.”
The chemistry built between players on the football team has obviously spilled over to the baseball squad.
“It’s just a bond like no other,” Cumbest said. “In baseball, you’ve got to gel together and work as a team.”
‘A whole lot of fun’
Cumbest will be a handful for opposing pitchers this season. After hitting .378 with four homers and 29 RBIs last year, the 6-foot-6, 235-pound senior should easily improve on those numbers.
Through four games, he was hitting .466 with two homers and a pair of RBIs. He easily cleared the left field fence Friday night, getting a good cut on a high breaking ball.
Davis also hit his first homer of the season against Pascagoula.
With a lineup full of players who spent the past few months on the football roster, Long expects that pop to be a consistent feature for his team.
“That makes it a whole lot of fun,” he said. “We’ve got a whole lot of dual-sport guys that are stronger, more athletic guys. Other coaches joke about how big we are for a baseball team, and we are. We’ve got some size to us and they try to play that way.”
With Smith building a consistent winner in football, it seems likely that Long and Smith will be sharing athletes for the foreseeable future.
“Give (Long) a ton of credit,” Smith said. “There’s no way we could have a better baseball coach as far as football than Bo Long. Coach Bo is a phenomenal human being and a great coach that lets us share athletes in a positive way. During football season, we allow them to get in the (batting) cage. He’s been great for us, he really has.”