For Columbus High School senior baseball player Michael Sturdivant, Saturday night quickly became more about celebration than dismay.
“We did something Columbus High School has never done,” Sturdivant said. “We were the best team that has ever come through this city. We were a special group of guys who really poured their hearts and souls into making it work. We won 23 games. We did things that had never been done before here and will probably be never done again. Making it to the third round of the playoffs is special. I am not bragging because the glory goes to God.”
Columbus’ surprising run through the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A North State playoffs came to an end Saturday night with a 3-1 loss to Tupelo at Sammy Fletcher Field.
Tupelo (24-8) advances to face DeSoto Central or Northwest Rankin the third round of the playoffs.
For Columbus (23-8), the season ends with a school record for victories. Columbus won its first two playoff series in program history. The nine-member senior class leaves the program with 70 wins and four playoff appearances. Columbus spent a stretch of this season ranked statewide and nationwide for the first time.
“I told the guys after the game was I proud — disappointed — but proud,” Columbus coach Jeffrey Cook said. “They did something that has never been done before here. They did it without a lot of support from the district. If you look at our facilities, they have overcome a lot by working hard. They went the extra mile. They played on fall teams to get the extra reps. I went and watched this group when they were in the fifth grade. So many of these kids just got so much better.
“It hurts that people really didn’t get behind us until the last three weeks.”
Tupelo took the series lead Friday night with a 7-6 win at home. In that game, the Falcons rallied from down 5-1 by scoring four times in the sixth inning and another in the seventh inning. Twice, Columbus was one strike away from victory before a two-out error opened the door and a pair of hits saved the Golden Wave. Tupelo never trailed in the series finale.
“We battled adversity all year,” Columbus senior shortstop Trace Lee said. “That is why I would go to battle with this group of guys on any night. We played with a lot of heart and a lot of character. As always, we give the glory to God, who strengthens us. Do we feel like we were beaten by a team better than us, absolutely not. They made the plays to win the game so our season ends. That doesn’t take away from how special this team was.”
Tupelo built a 2-0 lead with singles scores in the first and second innings. An infield error set up the first and third runs for the Golden Wave. The biggest score of the night may have been in the fifth, when Tupelo plated a run on a dropped third strike as the throw from catcher sailed down the first base line.
On offense, Columbus strung together nine hits off starter Carter Clayton and reliever Drew Hurst. However, the Falcons could never bust through. Courtesy runner Kendrick Conner was retired at the plate in the third on a spectacular throw by left fielder Luke Weeden. The Falcons had two other base runners thrown out stealing before finally scoring in the sixth.
With the bases loaded and nobody out in the sixth, Isaiah Farmer — already with a two-hit night — struck out. Sturdivant followed with a sacrifice fly. Deonteau Rieves then lined a ball down the third-base line. Third baseman Carson Roberts made a diving catch to save two runs and the lead.
“We had our chances,” Cook said. “It was a two-game series, where we had our chances. A base running mistake here, an error there. (Friday night) was as a heart-breaking a defeat as you could possibly have. Yet, the kids came back out ready to battle. You wouldn’t think scoring runs would be a problem because we have scored runs all season.”
Columbus was retired in order in the seventh — the only at-bat on the night it didn’t record at least one hit.
Senior Hunter Mullis, the other multiple hitter with Farmer, was valiant in defeat, allowing seven hits and one earned run in throwing the complete game for Columbus. Lee was equally sturdy in going the rout in Friday’s defeat.
For Columbus, the program which fought the past four years to get over the hump, finally found a silver lining in seeing some postseason success.
After an extended series of hugs and tears for coaches and seniors, Lee spoke at length to the team. Even Cook was emotional, as he thanked his players for the countless hours of dedication to be the best. Lee thanked his teammates for allowing him to be a leader and apologized for the times he failed them in that category. In closing, he told his teammates to remember the good times and to always know they should always be there for one another.
The tears quickly passed as dozens of family members entered the field’s playing surface. Quickly photos were taken and smiles were evident for the first time all night.
“We believed starting with our freshman year,” Sturdivant said. “Coach started six of us as freshmen. Ever since we made the playoffs the first time, we knew we could make it to (the state championship). We made a lot of mistakes in this series and that is why we lost. Tupelo capitalized on those mistakes. God didn’t want it to end the way we wanted it, too. But I am going to look past the disappointment and look at the joy instead. I am pretty proud of these guys. This was a lot of fun.”
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.