It's never easy to follow a legend, but Neil Frederic is off to a great start at Harrison Central.
Frederic is in his first season as the Red Rebels' head baseball coach after replacing Pat Olmi, who retired in May 2017 after 20 seasons on the job.
A year after the Red Rebels finished an uncharacteristic 14-15, Frederic has led the team to an 18-9 record and a spot in the third round of the Class 6A playoffs.
The last month has been an impressive one for Frederic's squad. The Red Rebels beat Class 6A favorite Gulfport (23-4) twice in region play, swept powerhouse Petal in the first round of the playoffs and eliminated a resurgent St. Martin squad in the second round.
With Game 1 set for 7 p.m. Thursday in Lucedale, Harrison Central has a shot to knock off another top contender — George County (22-3).
“I'm just one piece of the puzzle,” Frederic said Tuesday. “There are 29 guys and three coaches and middle school guys that help out. I'm proud of our team, proud of our guys. They're battle tested. They've taken some losses. There have been emotional highs and lows. We find ways to stick together and get it done. We try to give it a championship effort every time.”
Harrison Central hired Frederic away from Center Hill, which is located just south of Memphis, but he is no stranger to Coast baseball. Frederic is a former high school standout who played for coach Johnny Olsen at Pascagoula and later served on his staff at 'Goula. Frederic also worked as a staff member at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and Stone High before landing at Center Hill.
Olsen is in his second season as the head coach at Resurrection and he has the Eagles in pursuit of their second consecutive trip to Class 1A South State series. RCS will travel to Nanih Waiya for Game 1 of its series on Thursday.
For Olsen to see his former pupil having early success at Harrison Central, it comes as no surprise.
“He's always just been a guy that just studied the game and always took everything in,” he said.
After spending six years a six-hour drive away from his Pascagoula home at Center Hill, Frederic has thoroughly enjoyed returning to his native Coast.
“It seems like a lot of times there's a reunion wherever I go now,” he said. “Whether I go home to the grocery store or Jerry Lee's or get a chili cheese burger from Ed's or just going to a baseball game, you see guys you haven't seen in a while. You see kids I've coached in some capacity. You see people coming to games that are friends of the Frederic family. They show up and yell at me and it's people I haven't seen in a while. It's a special moment.”
While Harrison Central has yet to claim its first state championship in baseball, the Red Rebels were in the hunt for much of Olmi's tenure and produced some of South Mississippi's top talent, including Cleveland Indians star prospect Bobby Bradley.
For Frederic, it's a matter of trying to take Harrison Central baseball to that next level.
“There's a lot of tradition here,” he said. “There are signs in the outfield of some guys who had the opportunity to play at the pinnacle of baseball. I was just eager to get back down here around family and do what I can to put in that passion and desire to be the best. I'm not scared of tradition. I want to build on that tradition, do everything I can to take that next step and add to that tradition. These guys bought into it and they want the same.”
Once Frederic began to settle in at Harrison Central, he held a meet-and-greet with players and parents.
Even though he was replacing a head coach who had been on the job for 20 years, Frederic was encouraged by the response he got that day in the team's fieldhouse.
“There was a lot of eye contact, handshakes, a lot of good things,” he said. “They were eager for a little bit of change. No offense to anybody else, but they were just hungry. It's showing right now.
“We've had some guys step up, show maturity and become leaders. They like being held accountable and I've delegated certain things. That's how I like to operate.”
Among those players who have responded well to Frederic's approach is senior first baseman Dillon Morgan.
“It was different starting off, but he treats us like his kids,” Morgan said. “He's a father figure to us and we love him more than anything in the world.”
A well-rounded team
Morgan, an East Mississippi Community College signee, has been an important piece of the Harrison Central lineup since he was a freshman starter at third base. As a first baseman this season, he is hitting .360 with a couple of homers and 24 RBIs.
Morgan is key part of a team that's had important contributions across the board.
Dartagnan Hawthorne, a Gulf Coast signee, is a speedy standout in center field who is hitting .406 with four triples and eight stolen bases.
Senior Chase Jones has had a breakthrough season in the outfield. The Gulf Coast football signee is hitting .356 with team-leading totals of four homers and 34 RBIs.
The pitcher who will take the hill Thursday night at George County is senior right-hander Brendan Hardy, who is 6-0 with a 1.74 ERA in eight appearances this season. He has 66 strikeouts and issued 20 walks in 44 1/3 innings.
Hardy, who is a Jones County Junior College signee and holds offers from multiple SWAC schools, and No. 2 starter Brett Hughes (5-1, 1.67) have combined to help Harrison Central stay flawless in the postseason so far.
“You can probably say they're 1A and 1B,” Frederic said. “They're a little different in stature and maybe stuff wise. Hardy is blessed with a little bit of talent and some velocity. He has secondary stuff and stays within himself, has a pretty good arsenal.
“Hughes is a guy that can struggle, but he overcomes. He's a bulldog, not afraid to make mistakes.”
Harrison Central will not be lacking confidence when the third-round series begins Thursday at Lucedale.
“Everybody is thinking George County is going to come out and win this one,” Morgan said. “But we all know they're not. We're all going out there with all the intensity we had against Petal, St. Martin and Gulfport. We're going to give it to them.”