The Petal Panthers and Oak Grove Warriors make up 20 percent of the teams left in the 6A South. While the Warriors are starting their playoff journey this week, the Panthers had to earn the trip to the second round by sweeping D’Iberville in two high scoring games.
Up next for Petal is highly-ranked Biloxi, while Oak Grove will get Harrison Central in Round 2.
The Warriors (19-6) are used to having a first-round bye, but that doesn’t mean Oak Grove coach Chris McCardle still doesn’t tinker with his team’s practice schedule to take advantage of the off week. On one hand, his team can rest up and heal from some nagging injuries, but on the other hand, a team can cool down from a hot finish to the regular season.
“Every year we try to figure out a way to make (the week off) better,” McCardle said. “Don’t get me wrong, we were excited to win our district. Our division is tough, but we’re trying to come up with a way to keep the kids motivated and practice hard. It’s tough.”
For the most part, Oak Grove is as healthy as a team could be this late in the season. It used the week off to allow some pitchers to get some rest, while others needed work. The only injury McCardle could name was senior John Rhys Plumlee’s nagging hamstring, but that’s not hampering the Ole Miss football and baseball signee.
Plumlee is still a threat at the plate and on the base paths, though. He’s second on the team with a .493 batting average while leading the Warriors with 20 stolen bases.
“I don’t think Plumlee will heal until the season is over,” McCardle said. “Right now, we’re completely healthy except for Plumlee.”
Oak Grove’s second round opponent, Harrison Central (15-11), made quick work of Terry in the first round. The Red Rebels swept the Bulldogs 5-2 and 9-1 last week.
Harrison Central’s offense hits .286 collectively while the pitching staff has a 4.35 earned run average.
“They always have a good team,” McCardle said. “At this point in the year, the second round of the playoffs, anybody could win at this point. After the first round, the good teams kind of moved to the front like they have now. All of those teams are really good, and Harrison Central is no different.”
Game 1 of the best-of-three series is set for 7 p.m. Friday at Oak Grove, while Harrison Central will host Game 2 Saturday. First pitch for Game 2 has yet to be determined as of Thursday afternoon. If necessary, Game 3 will be back at Oak Grove Monday for a 7 p.m. first pitch.
Biloxi (25-3) will try to get a little redemption from the Panthers (13-14) after the two met at MGM Park earlier this season. In the Battle at the Beach, Petal handed the Indians their second loss of the season 7-4, so Petal coach Shane Kelly knows the formula to beat the 6A South favorite.
Petal held Biloxi to no runs through the first six innings. With a 7-0 lead, Petal allowed the only four runs in the bottom of the seventh inning.
“We were able to contain their bats for a little bit,” Kelly said. “They scored on us in the seventh inning, but the hits we gave up were spread out amongst the game. I think if we can do that and not give up any big innings with errors, we’ll have a chance to win the series.”
The Indians don’t appear to have many weaknesses – if any. They hit .361 as a team, have 87 stolen bases, the pitchers have combined for a 2.37 ERA and the defense has less errors (22) then the team has wins (25).
“Biloxi has a really good hitting team and they have some really good arms on the pitching staff,” Kelly said. “They’re ranked high because they have a really good team put together.”
The regular-season win over Biloxi didn’t just give Petal one more notch in the win column. It was part of a string of games that helped build the team’s confidence. Knowing they could compete against good teams, the Panthers carried that mindset through the end of the season and into the playoffs.
Their confidence grew even more after sweeping D’Iberville.
“We’re swinging the bats really well one through nine and our pitching has been doing a good job of keeping us in the ballgames,” Kelly said. “The kids each week just keep growing and keep getting confidence every time we play.”
However, Petal can’t keep winning shootout games. In the last three games, Petal has scored 35 runs, but it has allowed 33 as well. It’s the big innings that are hurting Petal, too. Against Sumrall in the season finale, the Bobcats scored six runs in two separate innings. Then in the D’Iberville series, it had three innings with at least two runs, and it scored four runs in the fourth inning of Game 2.
“That’s one thing we’ve talked about with our pitching staff, not giving up free bases,” Kelly said. “In a lot of those innings, that’s what happened with walks or hit by pitches. If we can cut that down, it should take care of a lot of that.”
Biloxi will host Game 1 Friday at 7 p.m., then Petal will entertain the Indians at 2 p.m. Saturday. Game 3, if the series is tied, will be back in Biloxi Monday for a 7 p.m. first pitch.