Chemistry is at the heart of everything the Heritage Academy baseball team has accomplished this season.
The Patriots didn’t waver when Justin Flake replaced Bruce Branch as head coach. They didn’t need to because many of them had played together for years and had been through the growing pains of a first-round playoff loss to Simpson Academy in 2017.
Heritage Academy is reaping the rewards from that chemistry and those lessons in 2018.
Fresh off a district championship and a first-round playoff series victory, Heritage Academy will play host to Indianola Academy at 6 tonight in Game 1 of the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools (MAIS) Class AAA North State title series.
Game 2 of the best-of-three series will be at 4 p.m. Thursday at Indianola Academy. If needed, Game 3 will follow approximately 30 minutes after the previous game.
The winner of the series will face the winner of the South State title series between Central Hinds Academy and Central Private School (La.) at times to be determined next week.
“We’re a team in every sense of the word,” Flake said. “Different people have stepped up at different moments throughout the year. You can look back and see where somebody stepped up and filled a role and came up with a big hit or made a big play.
“The kids are having fun. They believe in one another. There is a lot of trust.”
Heritage Academy (22-8) reached this point by going 10-2 in District 2. It rebounded from losing to Starkville Academy in its first two district games 8-5 on March 26 and 5-4 on March 27 to win the series finale 4-2 also March 27. It then won its final nine district games to take the title.
Last week, Heritage Academy bounced back from losses to Lamar School and Oak Hill Academy to beat Bayou Academy 11-1 and 8-3 to reach the second round.
Indianola Academy (22-8) advanced after rallying from a 3-1 loss to Starkville Academy in Game 1. It won 8-3 and 7-4 in Indianola to set the stage for the North State finals.
Flake sensed the chemistry in the Heritage Academy program when he coached against the Patriots when he was at Winston Academy and at Copiah Academy. He said confidence has grown over the course of the season to make that chemistry stronger. Flake said the Patriots’ ability to bounce back after two tough losses in the opening series against the Volunteers provided a spark.
“We knew the fight was there,” Flake said. “We had seen it all the way up to that point, but going forward we never really talked about losing. We talked about if Starkville slips up, we’re going to have a chance.”
Pitching depth played a key role in the Patriots’ run. In the MAIS, teams typically play three district games — one Tuesday, doubleheader Thursday — in a week, which can strain a pitching staff. Heritage Academy faced an added wrinkle in that Banks Hyde, who Flake said might have been the team’s top pitcher last season, hasn’t thrown many innings this season due to shoulder tightness. In his place, Blayze Berry, who has returned from an injury, Carter Putt, Seth Harris, and Reid Huskison have logged the majority of the innings, particularly in district play, to fuel the Patriots.
“Whoever runs out (of pitching) first is in a bind,” Flake said. “We have pitched it well enough and have had enough guys available that we never really got in a bind with our pitching where some other people may have.”
Flake said Hyde might have thrown 1/3 of an inning in the team’s 10-game winning streak. He said Hyde is back fresh and will be available to pitch if needed in the playoffs.
Flake said Huskison has been the first guy out of the bullpen, while Harris, who also starts at catcher, has filled in as the No. 3 starter.
Flake said Harris really wasn’t someone he thought would play as big a role as a pitcher, but he said Harris stepped in and looked “clean” and has been strong throughout district play.
Berry, who also plays shortstop, also has paced a hitting attack that has received contributions from every spot.
Flake said Heritage Academy recently juggled its lineup to move Berry from No. 3 to No. 2 and moved Hyde to the leadoff position. He feels the changes have helped set the table for the rest of the order.
“Everybody has had key hits,” Flake said. “Even when guys are struggling, they find ways to get on base and set the table for the top half. That has been key, rolling it over and getting guys into scoring position for those guys to drive them in.”
Tonight, Flake feels fans could be in store for a pitcher’s duel with Berry set to face off against Josh Hill. He hopes the Patriots’ chemistry and ability to pick each other up proves to be the difference again.
“(Tonight) is going to be a big-ticket matchup,” Flake said. “Whoever throws it the best is probably going to win.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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