Sumrall completes title defense, dream season

The wins for the baseball team at Sumrall (Miss.) just kept coming and coming, no longer possible to ignore.

The Class 3A Bobcats from southeastern Mississippi were beating all comers, be it in a 12-11 eighth-inning comeback over 5A power Clinton (Miss.), rallying past 4A Picayune (Miss.) or beating everyone in their own classification.

The regular season was coming to a close, and the Bobcats were headed to the playoffs at 26-0. The prospect of the 2008 state champs going undefeated had never really came up among the players and coaches. Finally, as junior third baseman Jackson Posey recalls, somebody mentioned it.

"Then somebody said 'We've come this far. Let's just finish this thing off,' " Posey said.

Which Sumrall did. The Bobcats swept five sets of best-of-three series, ending with wins of 10-4 and 11-1 over South Pontotoc (Miss.) in the finals at Pearl's Trustmark Field, home of the Double-A Mississippi Braves outside Jackson. Sumrall became the state's first unbeaten state winner since New Hope (Miss.) in 1996. In the process, the Bobcats placed third in the final ESPN RISE FAB 50 national baseball rankings.

Coach Larry Knight said he got worried late in the season that the conspicuous "0" in the loss column would weigh heavily on his players: "But it was almost like the kids -- when we got closer and closer, it was like, 'Hey, Coach. We're not gonna lose.'

"It never got to a point where it was so stressful that the kids lost their focus. I think it really helped them. It was a goal that they continued to seek."

Sophomore lefty Luke Lowery, Sumrall's No. 2 starter when not playing first base, said the streak was nerve-racking at times.

"You didn't want to make a play that cost the team the game," he said.

Sumrall lost seven key players from the '08 state champions, who went 32-6. At the center of the '09 team's success was senior pitcher-first baseman Jared Miller, who last month signed to play at Mississippi State. As a junior, Miller hit .212 and was 7-0 as a pitcher. This season, his average jumped to .414, he set a school record with 14 home runs and knocked in 50 runs. On the mound, the righty was 11-0 with a 1.67 earned run average.

Miller said he put only a few pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame, up to 210, between seasons and attributes his 200-point jump in batting average primarily to: "Confidence. Going out there knowing whatever they were going to throw at me, I was just going to look for the best pitch to hit in the situation."

Posey, who became a starter late in the 2008 season, hit .505 with 10 homers and 60 RBIs. Sophomore center fielder Austin Carter hit .468 with 43 RBIs.

Miller said the team's hitting benefits from Knight and hitting coach Steve Cooley having the players use wooden bats during much of the offseason.

"All fall, all we swing is wood bats, and into January and February," he said. "It just helps you get a better swing."

Knight won four 5A titles at nearby Hattiesburg (Miss.) before moving to Sumrall before the 2007 season.

Part of a Mississippi coaching family, the former minor league player left behind the successful program that he built over 13 seasons for Sumrall, located about 15 minutes to the northwest in the corner of Lamar County. He said he did so because his son Austin was going into the eighth grade in nearby Oak Grove (where his wife teaches) and he'd never get to see him if each remained where he was. Coach and son were united at Sumrall.

Knight's father, nicknamed "Jug," coached a state baseball winner at Meridian (Miss.) in the 1950s. Brother Steve is the athletic director and men's basketball coach at William Carey University in Hattiesburg.

He was hopeful that the '09 team could contend for another title. But an undefeated season?

"I certainly was not expecting that," Knight said. "I knew we had a good, strong young group, only had three seniors this year. Four juniors. I felt like we could make a run, go pretty deep and maybe have a chance at playing for it again."

Knight said the pre-district schedule loaded with larger schools, some of them among the state's top programs, helped prepare the Bobcats for the 3A playoffs.

"We were challenged," he said. "We were put in situations where we had to come back. We had to show what we were made of. In the playoffs, we'd seen every type of ballgame and we were kind of seasoned for it."

After easy games in the first two rounds of the playoffs, Sumrall squeezed past Raleigh in the third-round opener 2-1 behind Lowery (11-0, 2.28 ERA). Miller, as usual, pitched the second game, and Sumrall coasted 14-1.

"One game, we might not hit. One game, we might not pitch," Lowery said. "We always found a way to win."

That took the Bobcats to "south state," or the southern 3A semifinals, against regional rival Purvis (Miss.).

That prompted a little more talk about the winning streak.

"We were close," Miller said. "All we kept thinking was we can't let Purvis be the ones to ruin our streak."

Sumrall won 10-4 and 7-2 to advance to the finals.

A few weeks after the victory, Sumrall mayor Gerolene Rayborn helped organize a banquet to honor the team and a five-block parade down Main Street in the bedroom community of less than 2,000.

"I haven't seen that many people in my life," Posey said.

The Mississippi High School Athletic Association is adding a 6A classification next year. Sumrall will remain in 3A.

There were only three seniors on the team, all moving on to play college sports. In addition to Miller headed to State, right fielder B.J. Smith is going to Pearl River Community College to play baseball, and pitcher-DH Ryan Knight (no relation to the coach) is headed to Pearl River to play football, as a punter-kicker.

So did Miller leave any words of wisdom upon his departure?

"I just told 'em to keep it going," he said. "It would be great for them to keep winning all these games in a row, but the main goal is to keep winning state championships."

Said Posey: "We'll try to win it again. Can we go undefeated again? I don't know if any team's done that. That would be awesome."

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer and can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com.