Porters Chapel soars into Academy-A finals

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 14, 2001

T.J. Smith, PCA’s third baseman, tries to backhand a low throw as Huntington’s Patrick Clayton steals the base in the first game of a doubleheader. (The Vicksburg Post/MARK THORNTON)

[05/14/01] FERRIDAY, La. Heath Smith is an admitted “pressure junkie.” Friday night against Huntington, he came back from the brink of an overdose to put Porters Chapel Academy into the state finals.

Holding a 4-2 lead in the South State championship game, Smith pitched out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the bottom of the seventh inning by retiring the heart of the Huntington order, sending PCA to its first state championship series since 1975.

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PCA (21-11), which handed Huntington its first home loss of the year, will play Heidelberg in the Academy-A finals beginning Tuesday. Heidelberg, which has won 16 straight, swept Rossville (Tenn.) to win the North State title. Game 1 of the finals is Tuesday at PCA.

“My nerves are jumping. I wasn’t scared though,” said Smith, who struck out 10, walked three and allowed six hits. “It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had in my entire life … This is where I want to be. I dream about this.”

PCA coach Randy Wright was excited, but less mobile. After talking to his team, he simply sat on the top of the water bucket they had emptied on him, looking exhausted.

“It’s nerve-wracking. My God. I’m completely, utterly exhausted … I can’t take too many more of these,” Wright said. “I heard another coach talk in the paper about going to war. This was a war down here today.”

Smith (11-1) was rock-solid through the middle innings, retiring eight of nine in the fourth, fifth and sixth, but got into trouble quickly in the seventh.

He allowed a leadoff single to second baseman Patrick Clayton, the No. 9 batter, then walked the next two to load the bases for No. 3 hitter Luke Davis.

Smith struck out Davis for the first out, then got center fielder Toby Wilson who hit two home runs in the series to bounce a dribbler in front of the plate. PCA catcher Walter Bliss scooped it up and tagged Clayton, who was coming from third, for the second out, but there was one more tense moment. With the bases still loaded, Huntington third baseman Trey Mason drilled a two-strike pitch to the warning track in center. Kyle Ehrhardt easily hauled it in for the third out, setting off the Eagles’ celebration.

“I thought it was gone,” Smith said. “When it came off the bat, I thought it was either a home run, off the wall, or Kyle was going to catch it running into the fence.”

While the Eagles celebrated, Huntington (23-7) was left to wonder what might have been. The Hounds won the opener of the doubleheader Friday Game 2 of the series 7-4, and got an outstanding effort from ace Barrett Kiser in Game 3.

“Baseball is a cruel game,” Huntington coach Michael MacAnally said. “These guys have come through with big hits for us all year. Just because they didn’t come through there doesn’t mean they’re losers.”

Kiser (9-2), who went 3-for-4 with three doubles and two runs scored in Game 2, scattered just four hits and struck out 12, but defensive miscues tormented Huntington all day.

T.J. Smith’s RBI single in the second gave PCA a 1-0 lead, but the Hounds rallied for two runs in the third on an RBI fielder’s choice by Davis and an RBI groundout by Wilson.

Then, in the fourth, Kiser appeared to be on his way to a 1-2-3 inning when things fell apart.

After retiring the first two hitters, PCA’s Clayton Hensley reached on a dropped fly ball to left. Kiser struck out the next batter, T.J. Smith, but the ball got by Davis, who then hit Smith in the back of the head with the throw to first, putting runners on first and second for designated hitter Josh Rush.

Rush, who had made the last out of Game 2 in a pinch-hit appearance, singled to center to score Hensley. Wilson misplayed the ball, however, allowing Smith to score from first to give the Eagles a 3-2 lead.

“That really helped. I was feeling kind of down after striking out,” said Rush, who struck out in his first at-bat of Game 3. “I just said I knew I had to put it in play.”

PCA added another run in the fifth when Kyle Ehrhardt walked and scored from first on another misplayed single by Wilson. Walter Bliss got that hit and ended up at third, but didn’t score. Both teams went quietly in the sixth, setting up Smith’s tightrope act in the seventh.

PCA had plenty of chances to close out the series in Game 2, but stranded 10 runners seven of them in scoring position.

The Hounds made them pay by jumping ahead 5-2 after the second inning, a lead they never relinquished. John Mark Bonnette went 2-for-3 with a pair of RBI singles and Wilson added a solo home run in the fifth for Huntington.

For PCA, Heath Smith went 2-for-2 with an RBI triple, two walks and two runs scored, T.J. Smith went 2-for-4 with an RBI single and Andrew Embry doubled and drove in a run with a bases-loaded walk.