The St. Martin baseball team has long been overshadowed by some of the Coast's more prominent programs like Gulfport and Harrison Central, but the Yellow Jackets are quickly establishing themselves as a force to be reckoned with in South Mississippi.
Led by second-year head coach Kary Bridges, St. Martin (17-7, 6-4) clinched its first region title since 2012 by sweeping rival Ocean Springs, 6-1 and 5-3, in the final week of region play.
At 7 p.m. Friday, St. Martin will host Harrison Central (16-9) in Game 1 of a second-round Class 6A playoff series. St. Martin earned a bye to the second record thanks to its region championship while Harrison Central had an impressive sweep of Petal, 14-9 and 7-4, to get out of the first round.
St. Martin has gotten this far while relying on a young but talented core.
It's been almost three decades since St. Martin had a baseball player sign with a Division I program straight out of high school, but it appears that drought will soon come to an end. The last Yellow Jacket to sign Division I straight out of high school was Mickey Dutil, a pitcher who inked with Southern Miss in 1989.
Dutil happens to have a son on the current St. Martin varsity roster – eighth-grader Dane Dutil.
Star on the rise
Junior Brennen Study is drawing the interest of multiple Division I programs, including Ole Miss and Samford, as he continues to impress at the plate. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound third baseman has been one of the top hitters on the Coast this season, hitting .461 with six homers, nine doubles and 25 RBIs.
“He's very powerful, has good bat speed,” Bridges said. “He has a lot of power and he's learning how to use it. Last year, he hit one home run and I knew he would hit more. It's not all about home runs, but he does a really good job of driving the ball to all fields with power.
“He doesn't strike out. He has a good two-strike approach to get on base even more. He barrels a ton of balls up. Against better pitching, he seems to hit even better.”
As Study's numbers continue to climb, pitchers are beginning to work around him as much as possible.
“I'm definitely getting pitched backward a whole lot more,” Study said. “I'm seeing first-pitch curveballs. It's just a learning curve.
“In that situation, I'm looking at the field and seeing shifts here and then. I just hit something hard that the pitcher gives me. I try to be patient and wait for the mistake.”
More to work with
Bridges should know a Division I player when he sees one. The former Oak Grove standout starred for two seasons at Ole Miss in 1991 and 1992 before beginning a 10-year professional career that included five seasons at the Triple-A level as a sweet-swinging second baseman.
Bridges, who saw success as a coach at Oak Grove and Water Valley before landing at St. Martin, has much more to work with at the Coast school than just Study.
Junior Leif Moore has become a two-way star as a pitcher and an infielder. As the pitching ace, Moore is 6-2 with a 2.84 ERA with 63 strikeouts and 12 walks in 44 1/3 innings. As the No. 2 man in the lineup in front of Study, he is hitting .359 with four homers and 16 RBIs.
“He probably throws 85-86, might top out a little higher,” Bridges said of Moore's pitching repertoire. “He locates extremely well. We've had games where he's thrown first-pitch strikes to 24 out of 26 hitters. He really commands the zone with a good breaking ball.”
One of the few seniors on the squad, Nik Vollmuth, bats in the four-hole and junior R.J. Fletcher backs him up with the second-best batting average on the team at .380.
Another young infielder, second baseman Christian Thomas, has been a key part of the lineup with a .333 batting average.
“We have three or four guys that will play at the next level,” Bridges said. “Right now, Brennen is a guy where it's obvious that he will be able to swing the bat at the Division I level. We've got some others that are going to develop to that level.”
While St. Martin has already emerged as a contender in Class 6A, what has to be scary for the rest of the region is how much young talent will return for the Yellow Jackets in 2019. It's a group players took their lumps during a season that featured an 0-10 record in region play in 2016.
Under the direction of Bridges and an experienced coaching staff, St. Martin is learning what it takes to to vie for championships.
“We're definitely learning the winning culture,” Study said. “We know how to win and what we can do to keep winning.
“Our varsity, we've been playing together since we were little kids in T-Ball. It's just meshing more together as we keep playing.”