COLUMBIA, MS (WDAM) - As Central Hinds Academy was putting the finishing touches on a victory that would force a winner-take-all finale Thursday for the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools AAA state baseball championship, Wiley Cleland found Columbia Academy coach Heath Smith and made a promise.
"The game was in the sixth inning, and Wiley just looked at me and said, 'Coach, I've got us,'" Smith said. "He says that and it spreads a calmness over everybody."
Cleland kept his word, scattering four singles over seven innings and not allowing a run until Central Hinds' last at-bats, as Columbia Academy claimed the MAIS AAA state crown with a 6-1 victory at Cougar Field.
Cam Havard got Columbia Academy (32-10) going early with a two-run single in the first inning and Dylan Martin and Logan Bullock each homered in a three-run fourth as CA won its first state baseball title since 1996.
"It's just great, surreal almost," Smith said. "We've practiced and prepared for this moment, and you just can't stress enough just how important it's going to feel and how great it's going to feel.
"The great thing is we've got a really great group of young guys who were able to experience this, some on the field, some in the dugout. But it's something we want to build for our program. We won it in '96, and we don't want to wait another 21 years."
After Columbia Academy had taken the opener of the best-of-three series with a 14-1 victory, Central Hinds (28-8) forced a third game Thursday with a 13-7 victory in the first game of what became a championship doubleheader.
But Cleland (3-0) and his defense kept CHA off the scoreboard until the seventh inning.
CHA loaded the bases in the first inning with two outs, Cleland got a strikeout to end the threat.
In the second inning, with men at first and second and two outs, Havard made a rolling stop on a hard-hit ball headed for center field, and while on his back, flipped to second base to get the force and the inning's final out.
In the third inning with one out, Havard leapt to prevent a looping hit in the deep infield and then doubled off a runner at first. Finally, in the sixth inning with the bases loaded and one out, Havard was the turn man on a 4-6-3 double play started by Bullock that got Cleland out of another jam.
"There was no doubt we were going to win," said Cleland, who walked four, hit three batters and struck out six. "I knew what I could do and had a great defense behind me that made plays.
"When they rolled it up there in the (sixth) inning that was probably the biggest play of the game."
CHA coach Doug Shanks had high praise for Cleland and Columbia Academy.
"He's a champion and he competed," Shanks said. "He was dying at the end, and he just kept competing.
"They've done a good job here and have a great program. The crowds have been magnificent and just a great experience for all these kids."
And Columbia Academy made its five hits count off CHA starter Josh Banes, a Louisiana Tech University signee.
After Luke McKenzie walked and Slade Wilks singled to start the first inning, Havard followed with a one-out single over a drawn-in infield to give his team a 2-0 lead.
In the fourth inning, Martin crushed his sixth home run of the season to left-center field, and after Banes hit Aaron Thomas with a pitch, Bullock followed with his fourth homer of the year for a 5-0 lead.
Cleland helped his own cause, tripling to lead off the sixth inning and then scoring on a wild pitch.
Central Hinds got on the board in the seventh when Tanner Leggett walked, moved to third base on a pair of wild pitches and scored on an error.
But Cleland got a grounder and then ended the game when he caught Prentice Brown looking at strike three as Columbia Academy's celebration began on their own diamond.
"Senior leadership, you can't say enough," Smith said. "You can talk about it's not important, but at the end of the day, it's everything, that's senior leadership.
"It was great for them to get to play their last game here. We didn't get to play at a neutral venue, but hey, who gets to play their last game for a state championship on their home field? It's a great feeling."