When Neil Walther arrived on the Coast nine years ago he was a really popular dude.
Just not for reasons most would be proud of.
Pearl River Central's baseball coach remembered how far his program has come Friday night after the Blue Devils were swept by Hattiesburg in the Class 5A South State series.
It wasn't that long ago that the Blue Devils were hanging signs on the outfield wall for merely for reaching the postseason.
"We got rid of those," Walther said.
He can list off his first group of seniors by name -- there were only three, after all, with two of them routinely in the starting nine.
"They turned it into a program that's respected. The first few years..." Walther said before switching gears. "Look, when we'd go to the (coaches) scheduling meetings on the Coast, I used to be the most popular guy. I would walk in and there would be a line. I just thought people from Mississippi were friendly.
"Instead it was, 'Hey, we have an open date.' Now, they won't even talk to me."
Prior to his arrival from Indiana, the Blue Devils had made the playoffs just a handful of times. In the years since moving South, Walther has transformed PRC into an annual postseason participant. This year, the Blue Devils took that next step, eliminating Wayne County, West Harrison and West Jones en route to the South State series. It marked the school's first time to make it that far.
The next step
Walther pointed to this year's seniors -- Jeshua Lee, Wes Mitchell, Hunter McElray, Nick Newman, Jonathon Kennedy, Cody Miller, Andrew Krol and Anthony Hickman -- for getting the Blue Devils to the next level.
"They won three district titles, tied a school record for wins this year, which they were on a team two years ago that initially set it. They won over 80 games in their high school career," he said. "They have helped turn Pearl River Central into a team that isn't just 'hey, they have some good players this year, maybe they'll get into the playoffs,' into a team that's expected to be there.
"They have brought a lot of respectability to this program. I'm awful proud of them."
The turnaround was a combination of mindset and building a solid foundation that could be built upon once the players reached high school.
"We just demanded a lot of them and told them 'why not you?'" Walther said. "They worked extremely hard at it."
After posting a 23-11 record this season, and 63 wins in the last three seasons, the Blue Devils are no longer perennial underdogs.
"I do think we have the potential each year to have a team that gains respect," Walther said. "It's not going to be 'we got a good draw, we got Pearl River Central.'
"I think it's a bad draw. I think it's a bad draw when you draw Pearl River Central. That's how I want it to be."
Patrick Ochs, a Sun Herald sports reporter, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at PatrickOchs.