WEST POINT — The smile can’t mask the emotion Brett Blaise feels for Marion Bratton.
There are plenty stories Blaise could tell about his former baseball coach at Heritage Academy. Judging from the grin on Blaise’s face, you can tell he believes it’s best to keep those tales tucked away so his current “boss” at Oak Hill Academy doesn’t revert to the form he remembers Bratton having when he led the Patriots.
“He is a lot more mellow,” Blaise said. “He is a lot calmer. He handles things a little differently. He is a little less aggressive. He doesn’t get as uptight about things. He is a little bit more laid back about things as he was then. He is not as hard (strict) as he used to be, but in a good way.”
Blaise, a left-handed pitcher, played for Bratton as a freshman and as a sophomore at Heritage Academy in Columbus. He went on to play baseball at Pearl River Community College in Poplarville and Belhaven University in Jackson. Blaise also pitched for one year in the Tampa Bay Rays organization. Blaise is in his second season as an assistant coach on the Oak Hill Academy baseball team. Along with former Oak Hill Academy player Mitch Bohon, the Raiders have a three-pronged approach that blends old- and new-school coaching methods. The memories and the lessons Blaise and Bohon learned from Bratton have added to the chemistry that has carried Oak Hill Academy (16-7) into the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AA title series against Silliman Institute (21-7). Game 1 of the best-of-three championship series will be at 5 tonight. Game 2 will be at 4:30 p.m. in Clinton, Louisiana. If needed, Game 3 will be approximately 30 minutes after the previous game.
Blaise, who works with Oak Hill Academy’s pitchers, said Bratton’s coaching style has worked well with an experienced, laid-back group. But don’t mistake Bratton’s “mellower” approach to mean he is a pushover. Blaise said Bratton still has a way of getting the players re-focused when they don’t have the right attitude.
Bohon, who played for Bratton in his junior and seniors seasons at Oak Hill Academy, said Bratton has learned to motivate in a different but still positive way. The infielder/pitcher went on to play two years at East Mississippi C.C. in Scooba and at William Carey University in Hattiesburg.
“He was very vocal,” said Bohon, who is in his second season as an assistant coach for the Raiders. “He was always very vocal with me. He has been like my second dad and had always treated me like his son, so he is very quick to jump the gun with me. When he needed to get on me, he got on me. He was always good at that. He always put me back in my place when I needed to be. He got his point across when he needed to in the way he needed to do it.”
Bohon admits it’s easier now to see why Bratton was hard on him. He said Bratton always was there to keep him in check and to put him in his place when he needed to be. He said Bratton found a way to get him to re-focus and didn’t allow him to sit there sulking. Bohon said those lessons helped make him a better player and a better man.
Those same lessons are being taught this season.
Senior infielder/pitcher Riley Pierce has been in the program since the seventh grade. He said he played in his first high school game as an eighth-grader, so he, too, has plenty of stories and memories about Bratton.
“He still has the fire in him, but the older you get the more laid back he is,” Pierce said. “He is a lot different. He has mellowed down a lot, even since I was in the seventh grade. I used to remember him coming to elementary school camps and being cared to death of him. Now he is probably my favorite coach.”
Pierce said he respects Bratton because of everything he has accomplished in his career. He said that respect has been earned in part based on the way Bratton treats the players. He said Bratton treats everyone fairly and doesn’t play favorites. Pierce said the leadership of the team has played a key role in the players’ ability to build team chemistry through three sports and fishing and hunting and everything else.
“We’re as close as brothers are on this team, and coach Bratton has a lot to do with that,” Pierce said. “He is a great leader, and he makes sure we understand than we listen to him before we listen to each other. … We have a lot of senior leaders on this team that step up and get on people when they need to. We just love each other. It is fun playing with the same people in every sport and knowing everybody and being best friends with everybody.”
The bonds the Raiders have built through football and basketball and baseball has enabled them to rally to win the final two games of the past two playoff series. Pierce admits comebacks like those might not have seemed possible after the team lost its first two games of the season. But he said everyone decided one day that they were going to “buy in” and see where they could go. He said having a coach who has been around as long as Bratton and who has former players like Blaise and Bohon who respect him as much as they do has made the journey easier for members of the 2015 team.
“Seeing two players like that respect the man so much, it shows you he obviously knows what he is talking about,” Pierce said. “If they listened to him and say he knows what he is talking about, just listen to him, obviously he does based on their accomplishments that they have. If they listened to him, obviously he is doing something right.
“You trust them,” Pierce said, referring to Bratton and Oak Hill Academy boys basketball coach Brian Middleton. “When they tell you something, and they believe something, you kind of believe the same thing they do. He has been telling us since day one that we can be a good ballteam if we just put our minds to it, so we just bought into it and went along with it.”
Like Bratton, Bohon credited the players for realizing their potential. He said he, Blaise, and Bratton talked at the beginning of the year and believed this year’s teach could accomplish special things. He said they have always found a way to battle through injuries, bad weather, and transportation mishaps, like a bus breaking down going to a game.
Bohon does a better job hiding his smile when he recalls his memories of Bratton, but you can tell being a part of the journey with his former coach has meant a lot to him.
“He is a very special man in my life,” Bohon said. “He has helped me through a lot of adversities, and he still does that today. When I have a life problem, I can go to him. He has been one of the many rocks in my life. No matter what I’ve gone through, he has been there. It is beyond special to see at this point in his career for him to have a chance to win a state title.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.