Once again as No. 3, Petal set to play D'ville in first round

By CAMAL PETRO,

For the fourth straight season, the Petal Panthers are a No. 3 seed heading into the 6A playoffs. Despite the seeding, though, the Panthers are trying to win a first-round series against a coast counterpart for the third time out of those four years.  

The D’Iberville Warriors, however, will try to stop that streak, but they were once victims to the Panthers in the 2016 first round. Game 1 will be played at D’Iberville on Friday, then Game 2 is set for Saturday in Petal. If necessary, Game 3 is back on the coast Monday, and all game times are 7 p.m.

The Warriors (16-10) are solid in every phase. They have a .307 team batting average, a 3.18 team earned run average, they’ve stolen 89 bases and have a .935 fielding percentage.

“I know D’Iberville has a good pitching staff. They have some speed in their lineup and they’re just a well-rounded team,” Petal coach Shane Kelly said.

The Panthers (11-14) have experienced their fair share of highs and lows this season. Their overall record isn’t indicative of how they’re playing right now either. After starting the season 4-11, Petal has now won seven of its last 10 games to close out the season.

“We feel like we’re in the right spot going into the playoffs with everything clicking,” Kelly said. “That’s the whole key. It’s not how you start your season off, it’s how you learn from your mistakes and adversity.”

Wins over two 6A favorites, Oak Grove and Biloxi, were huge for the young Panthers, and it showed they could compete with anybody.

“I think since the Oak Grove game, when we beat those guys, then on spring break when we beat Biloxi, our guys got confidence that they could compete with anybody,” Kelly said. “Since then, we’ve played much better on the field, we’ve hit better and we’ve pitched better. They’ve just gotten used to those pressure situations and handling it as we’ve grown as a team.”

What helped spark Petal for a couple of those big wins was starting catcher Matt Mercer. However, it wasn’t his play behind the plate, although that’s been solid as well. Mercer wasn’t tabbed as a starting pitcher to start the season, but he developed into the team’s ace as the season progressed.

The junior did deal with an injury, which forced him to miss a few starts, but he’s back and ready to go this weekend. He pitched a couple of innings last week, and Kelly called Mercer close to 100 percent.

“He was so valuable behind the plate that we didn’t peg him to be in the starting rotation,” Kelly said. “We had some other guys go down (with injuries), so Matt stepped into that role and took it upon himself to help the team out on whatever we needed.”

In 24.2 innings, Mercer has a 1.99 ERA with 19 strikeouts.

Offensively, the Panthers have three players with a .300 batters or better. Senior Colton Rainey, who signed with Holmes Community College on Tuesday, leads the way with a .377 average, while juniors Josh Cary and Devin Stringer are second and third with .375 and .304 averages, respectively.