STARKVILLE — Disappointment is an obvious way to describe Starkville High School”s baseball season.
But a closer look from outside observers — a view players and coaches are trying to accept — reveals a team on the cusp of a winning record, a playoff spot, and, quite possibly, a successful playoff run.
The Yellow Jackets bowed out with a 9-12 record this season and uncharacteristically are sitting at home as the Class 6A playoffs are under way.
Starkville lost nine of its 12 games by a combined 18 runs, including five region losses when it had bases loaded 12 times, which resulted in more than 20 at-bats.
Starkville”s hitting woes were an issue all season, as it finished last in the region with 135 runs. Third-place region finisher Columbus High had 28 more despite giving up 51 more runs.
But offense isn”t what kept Starkville out of the playoffs. The Yellow Jackets squandered a seven-run lead in the last inning of their regular-season finale at South Panola. Starkville had two outs with a 13-9 lead before falling 14-13.
A win would have given Starkville a chance to clinch a playoff spot. Columbus, which was playing several hours later the same day, went on to lose to region champion Tupelo 17-3 in eight innings.
“I can”t express how disappointed I am that it worked out that way,” Starkville coach Danny Carlisle said. “We were really behind the eight ball. We worked ourselves back into a playoff situation and blew that lead in the last inning. It just seemed like it wasn”t going to happen for them (the players).”
Starkville loses seven seniors, including catcher Blake Dawkins, a three-year starter and the team”s third-leading hitter with a .351 average.
Wesley Montgomery, a two-year starter at third base, finished with a .306 average and a team-high 17 runs.
The surprise of the senior class was Garrett Batson, who despite batting .114 became Starkville”s best defensive first baseman and No. 1 pitcher.
When former No. 1 and No. 2 pitchers Nick Brooks and Shaquille Hill were suspended for the season in week three, the mound immediately became a trouble spot.
But Batson, who pitched in just two games as a junior, posted the team”s best record (2-2) and threw the most innings (31 1/3). His 3.57 ERA led the team, and opposing batters hit just .215 against him.
“He worked very hard to be that every-day player, to come in and throw strikes on the mound,” Carlisle said. “I was extremely proud of him. We were hoping, I guess you could say, he would turn into that type of player. We were pleasantly surprised. We pitched him in Florida when we were short on B-team pitching, and I don”t think he was prepared to pitch and got roughed up. After that, he came back and dedicated himself to being more mentally ready to pitch instead of just throwing.”
Starkville”s senior class, though perhaps lacking the multi-year starters Carlisle had in past seniors like RJ Johnson, Daniel Forde, and Chuck Tillery, had players fill key roles.
Whether it was Blake Harrell logging innings at the two middle infield spots, or Lee Peeples contributing to the pitching rotation, Carlisle said this year”s seniors was uncharacteristic of past classes.
“You look at what Jaquez Johnson was able to do for us as a designated hitter, or Garrett Smith running the bases for us — everybody played a role,” Carlisle said. “It”s been a long time since I”ve had a class like this. This was a unique group. They maintained good attitudes through very trying times.”
Losing seven seniors won”t decimate the Yellow Jackets because they have a deep group of underclassmen returning next season.
Starting second baseman Jordan Allgood, first baseman and No. 2 pitcher Nathan Pugh, starting shortstop Max Bartlett, infielder Hayden Higginbotham, and starting outfielders Victor Johnson and Daniel Murphree make up a returning group that in many ways carried the Yellow Jackets this season.
Carlisle said one of the keys to next season”s lineup will be rising sophomore Harper Day”s ability to win the catcher”s job. He and Higginbotham shared backup roles to Dawkins this season, but Carlisle would like to have Higginbotham in the field, possibly at third base to replace Montgomery.
“It”s going to take a lot of hard work, but if Harper can come in and win that spot for us he can be the man,” Carlisle said.
Starkville moves down to 5A next season, where it will compete in Region 3, District 4 against Neshoba Central, Yazoo City, and Canton. Carlisle said Neshoba Central, which finished second in the district behind Ridgeland this season, will be its toughest competitor.
However, the move down brings potential playoff opponents New Hope, Oxford, Saltillo, and Ridgeland.
“Numbers wise, this puts us on par with most of the teams in 5A,” Carlisle said. “But we can”t go in there thinking we”re 6A and we”ll just dominate this thing. There”s a lot of new teams we”ll play, and it will be a fight every ballgame.”