ELLISVILLE, MS - With its baseball season on the line Friday night at Braves Field, Hattiesburg High School declined to go quietly into what turned out to be a very long night.
The Tigers, who trailed 6-1 early and then 7-4 facing their last at-bats, rallied to tie the game after seven innings and then scored four runs in the top of the ninth inning to outlast South Jones High School 11-8 in a semifinal game of the Class 5A South State playoffs.
"I've never been more proud of this group then I have been (Friday night)," HHS coach Joe Hartfield said. "You come over to a very tough place to play, you get down 6-1, and we could have clocked out at any time. A lot of crushing things happened to us, but we kept our composure better then we have."
The victory, which took about 3 ½ hours to secure, set up a winner-take-all Game Three at 7 p.m. at in Hattiesburg. South Jones (18-11) downed Hattiesburg (21-10) won the opening game of the best-of-three series 8-3 Thursday at Smokie Harrington Park.
"It's gut-wrenching, for sure," South Jones coach Jordan Rogers said. "But at the same time, you love being in ballgames like that. I'm proud of my guys.
"We threw a punch, they threw a punch. We threw a punch, they threw a punch. It was like that all night, and that's what you get in 5A baseball. You can't help but expect a three-game set this time of year."
The game was messy, with the teams going through eight pitchers and combining for eight errors. Twenty-two walk were issued and four batters reached after being hit by a pitch, including three in one inning. The contest even featured a rare catcher's interference call.
A.J. Stinson started for Hattiesburg and had trouble finding the strike zone, walking the first four batters he faced. The Braves took a 1-0 lead when Tyson Sumrall walked, moved up two bases on wild pitches and scored on a throwing error. But Stinson came back with three consecutive strikeouts to leave the bases loaded.
Hattiesburg tied the game in the fourth when Stinson reached second on an error and scored on a single by Letrelle Johnson.
South Jones took a 6-1 lead in the fourth inning, scoring five runs on three hits, three hits batsmen, a walk and an error. Mark Diers drove in a run on a grounder and Tyler Ducksworth and Ricky Boleware forced in runs when they were hit by pitches with the bases loaded. Ben Welch hit an RBI single and the final run scored on an error.
"I just told them to keep fighting," Hartfield said. "We didn't have to score all the runs in one innings. We had three innings, and that's a lot for us."
The Tigers scored twice in the fifth inning on a sacrifice fly by Dexter Jordan and a wild pitch and added another run in the sixth on a fielder's choice grounder to pull within 6-4.
The Braves tacked on another run in the bottom of the inning on another run-scoring single by Welch leaving them with a three-run lead and three outs away from a series sweep.
Boleware, the Braves' starter, was relieved by John Mitchell to start the seventh, and Joe Gray greeted him with a double. After a strikeout, three consecutive walks forced in Gray to pull HHS within 7-5.
Ducksworth (1-2) replaced Mitchell and gave up a run-scoring single to Caleb Tart to get the Tigers within a run and Stinson tied the game when he came home on a wild pitch.
South Jones threatened in the eighth when Sumrall singled and reached second base on an error with two outs. Pinch-hitter Nate Conliff then singled to right field, but Kameron Wells threw out Sumrall at the plate trying to score.
"That was probably the biggest play of the game," Hartfield said.
The Tigers then used four walks, a hit and a catcher's interference call to take an 11-7 lead in the top of the seventh.
South Jones scored a run in the seventh, loading the bases with two outs against HHS's fourth pitcher Jay Reedy (1-0). Sumrall forced in a run when he was hit by a pitch, but Wells relieved Reedy, and got Ducksworth to foul out to end the game.
"The kids played (Friday), and I'm proud of my guys," Rogers said. "They were battling. What'd we go, nine innings? You look up and you've got a chance win it in the ninth.
"Hats off to both programs. It's good high school baseball in Mississippi. What more could you ask for on a Friday night in May?"