There was a packed crowd of 1,201 on hand for Game 1 of the Class 4A South State series, and at least one of those spectators was a college coach who had to have a close eye on the man on the mound for Vancleave.
Bailee Hendon, who is still waiting on his first Division I scholarship offer, tossed another gem for the Bulldogs (26-7) to help clinch a 3-1 victory over East Central before a raucous home crowd Thursday night.
It was quite the scene Thursday night for what's been dubbed the Singing River Series. Fans watched the game from crowded bleachers, from the back of pickup trucks parked behind the outfield fence and while leaned over the dugout.
“I thought it was awesome,” Vancleave head coach Daniel Best said. “I think it will be the same thing over there. We knew coming in it would be a big crowd. It will be a big crowd there. That's what you want to play in front of – the college atmosphere.”
The two teams will play Game 2 at 7 p.m. Friday at Hurley.
Hendon, a 6-foot-4 lefty who has signed with Jones County Junior College, was as dominant as ever to start the game, retiring the first 11 batters before East Central senior Brad Cumbest broke up the no-hitter with a two-out single in the fourth inning.
Hendon, who has three no-hitters this season, limited East Central (24-5) to no earned runs on three hits. He struck out eight and walked none.
“He was very efficient tonight, got his pitch count down and filled up the zone,” Best said.
A member of the Louisiana Tech staff made the short trip from Hattiesburg for Thursday night's game. The La. Tech squad was set to play a three-game series at Southern Miss starting Friday night.
Asked what he thought of having a Division I coach on hand to watch him pitch in such a big game, Hendon shrugged it off.
“The pressure is always there,” he said. “There were a lot of fans.”
Hendon, who improved to 11-0, gave the fans just what they wanted, mostly breezing through a tough East Central lineup.
The only dangerous moment for Hendon happened in the sixth inning when East Central loaded the bases with none out.
East Central's Dawson Hall sent a hard hit grounder to the left side of the infield where it bounced off third baseman Jon Knight to allow East Central to plate its first and only run of the game. Knight played strong defensively the rest of the way, including a nice grab and toss to first for the final out of the game.
Hendon rebounded to strike out the next man up, Branson Davis, leaving the bases loaded full of Hornets.
“I threw my slider and off speed a lot,” Hendon said. “At the end of the game, I started mixing it up, throwing my fastball.
“The last inning, we just started pumping fastballs and they couldn't hit it that well.”
Vancleave jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first inning when Justin Stokes' hard-hit grounder made a difficult bounce on East Central second baseman Gavin Tanner and rolled into center field, allowing Colton Hipp to score from second.
Jason Moss followed with another single, but Cumbest (10-1) retired the next two batters to hold Vancleave to one run.
Vancleave tacked on two more insurance runs in the fourth inning after Moss led off with a double and scored on a single by Gavin McKerchie. The Bulldogs' final run came when McKerchie took home on a pitch that got away from East Central catcher Louis Morgan.
“We had some guys in the bottom of the order step up,” Best said. “We've been seeing a trend with that lately. That's what you've got to have at this point of the season.”
Cumbest, a Mississippi State football signee, threw well for East Central, holding Vancleave to three runs on just four hits. He struck out eight and walked one.
“They were two runs better than us,” East Central coach Bo Long said. “They're good. Everybody still playing is good. Cumbest threw a great game. Hendon threw a great game. They got a couple of key, timely hits that we didn't get. We had opportunities late and didn't really cash in on it.”