• 43°

PCA ready to make run at state title

This is the last in a series of previews of local baseball teams. Today: Porters Chapel Academy.

[02/27/01] With two years of playoff experience under their belt, seven seniors and eight returning starters from last season’s 19-7 squad, the 2001 Porters Chapel Academy Eagles aren’t just armed for a run at an Academy-A state title, they’re loaded for bear.

Every PCA starter hit over .300 last season and the pitching staff, led by senior ace Heath Smith, goes six-deep.

“One through 15, this is definitely the best team I’ve had out here, and we have a chance to go farther in the playoffs than we have been before,” said PCA coach Randy Wright, who enters his sixth season at the school.

PCA’s freshman and sophomore class is solid, but Wright said it may be a year or two before they’re state championship material. Because of the high expectations and the large senior class, there is also a sense of urgency from the players.

“If we’re going to win it, this is going to be the year. We’ve got seven seniors out here and there’s so much expectation for us to win this thing ,” Smith said. “It’d be a definite disappointment if we don’t win it this year.”

A tough schedule and a new conference should also help the Eagles if they reach the postseason. PCA plays several games against Academy-AAAA schools, including perennial powers Hillcrest and Jackson Prep, and also has two games against defending Academy-A champion University Christian, a longtime nemesis.

“Last year we didn’t see all that good pitching, to be honest with you. That was our problem in the playoffs. We saw half-decent pitching in the playoffs and we choked,” shortstop Clayton Hensley said. “This year our schedule is nothing but to prepare us for the playoffs. So all the people in Vicksburg don’t need to our record fool them this year.”

University Christian, however, is now out of the Eagles’ conference. That should give PCA an easier road to a conference title, but the Eagles also some extra incentive the Conference 7-A champion gets a first-round playoff bye.

The road to the playoffs begins on the mound, and PCA’s biggest strength is its pitching staff.

Smith went 8-3 last season with a 1.84 ERA, and struck out 126 batters in 79 innings. No. 2 starter Trey White was 6-2 with a 1.98 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 37 innings, and sophomore left-hander Andrew Embry (3-1, 26 strikeouts in 19-1/3 innings) should play a bigger role this season.

Hensley, Dustin Abbott and Warren Central transfer Kyle Ehrhardt round out the staff.

“I think this pitching staff is going to be awesome,” Smith said. “We’ve got six pitchers we can rely on at any time, and we’ve never had that before.”

Ehrhardt, Abbott and Jeremiah Riggs, all seniors, will probably start in a crowded outfield, but they are being pushed by junior Chris Simms and sophomore Aaron Curry, who Wright is very high on.

“(Curry) turned my head during the fall and winter workouts, and he is very capable of playing the outfield for us,” Wright said.

White, who led Warren County with a .494 average and drove in 45 runs last season, will once again play a utility role. Embry, a great defensive player who hit seven home runs as a freshman, will play first base and Smith will play second.

“I feel like I’ve got the best first baseman in Warren County,” Wright said of Embry. “He is as good defensively as anybody around. I feel I’ve got as good a defensive first baseman as there is in the state of Mississippi.”

Across the diamond, Hensley hit .408 last season and has made the transition from third base to shortstop, leaving third up for grabs among Josh Rush, Joseph Ivey and Vicksburg High transfer T.J. Smith.

“Whoever I decide to be the opening-day guy will probably get at least five or six games,” Wright said.

“If they’re doing the job, they’ll stay there. If not, we’ll try somebody else.”