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Vikings bring home first title from Hattiesburg, 5-2

At left, Sam Temple, WC’s head coach, celebrates after the final out. At right, Taylor Tankersley cries as he gets a hug from his father, Tom Tankersley, while fans and players celebrate at Smokie Harrington Park in Hattiesburg. (The Vicksburg Post/MARK THORNTON)

[05/14/01] HATTIESBURG Carl Upton, WC’s playoff closer, slapped a pair of Viking size exclamation points on the most important baseball day in the 36-year history of the school.

Upton’s seventh-inning single and fourth straight brilliant pitching performance gave WC (36-3) a 5-2 win over perennial power Hattiesburg for the school’s first baseball state championship.

A raucous, overflow crowd estimated at 2,000 at least half Warren Central faithful stormed the field after the game setting off a wild celebration.

“This is the best feeling I’ve ever had,” said Upton, who scattered five hits and allowed just two runs, but delivered at the plate in the seventh to give WC the cushion it needed. “This is a great day in my life.”

Upton’s single up the middle scored Brent Towne from second with one out to give WC a 3-2 lead. The Vikings added two more runs to seal the win.

WC coach Sam Temple had Brian Pettway warm in the bullpen, but was going to let Upton at least start the seventh inning. Upton (12-0) closed out each of the four Vikings’ playoff wins over Starkville, Madison Central, Tupelo and the Tigers (30-9).

“We really thought we were going to get to him and a lot of other coaches I talked to said the same thing when they played against him,” Hattiesburg coach Larry Knight, who led his team to three state championships in the 1990s, but lost the last two (1999 to Southaven and this season). “He did a really good job getting the ball in on us and throwing strikes. We just couldn’t get the big hits.”

The victory closes out a season that has seen the Vikings complete a turnaround from 11 wins five years ago to the top of Mississippi baseball. WC earned the state’s top ranking early in the season and climbed as high as No. 9 in the latest USA Today poll.

Losses to Mississippi Class 4A teams Pearl, who is playing for the Class 4A championship, and Terry and to Woodlawn (La.), then the top-rated team in Louisiana 4A, were the only blemishes to the season. After the final two losses of the regular season, WC ran through the playoffs having to use only two pitchers and not losing a game.

“It’s hard to come up with words to describe this bunch of guys,” said Temple, choking back emotions after getting doused with ice water. “All year long this group has been believing in themselves and each other. It’s their heart and character and fight and that showed tonight … Tonight we had to fight for the win and it made all the difference.”

Unlike Thursday’s 13-3 win, the Vikings scrapped and clawed through hard-throwing Cliff Russum and a brutal Hattiesburg offensive lineup. Russum, a Southern Mississippi signee who topped out at 92 MPH, gave up 10 hits after allowing just one through three innings. The Vikings left nine on base, but didn’t get a feel for the righty until the fourth.

“He had us early,” said Towne, who had a single and a pair of runs. “After a while, he started to get a little tired and we started hitting the ball real good.”

The most impressive of those shots counted as just an out. After Brian Pettway’s fifth-inning double scored John Morgan Mims to tie the game 2-2, Knight walked Joey Lieberman, who had a double and a single, intentionally to get to Upton. The junior hit a monster shot to deep left-center field estimated at 430 feet, but University of Tennessee football signee Chris Heath caught the ball while crashing into the outfield fence at cavernous Smokie Harrington Park. The center field wall measures 445 feet.

“I’ve never hit one that far,” said Upton with a chuckle. “I just hoped it kept going.”

Heath’s play was just one of many stellar defensive plays after a sloppily played first game.

John Morgan Mims made a sliding catch in the bottom of the second on a sinking line drive.

Lieberman, with a man on third base in the fourth inning and already one Hattiesburg run in, fielded a grounder deep in the hole between third and shortstop, then calmly threw out Derek Underwood for the third out in the inning.

Craig Tatum, a Mississippi State signee considered one of the top catchers in the South, gunned down a WC runner at first after a wild-pitch third strike, then nipped Hite at third on a sacrifice bunt attempt in the fifth with the Tigers holding a 2-1 lead.

“We’re at that time in the year when everything has to be clicking,” Mims said of his team’s defense. “If one spoke in the wheel is not clicking you’re in trouble. We were clicking tonight.”

When it counted, though, Upton was equal to Russom’s challenge. Pettway led off the seventh with a single, then Towne walked and Lieberman reached on a fielder’s choice to put runners on first and second with one out. Upton took a fastball and lined a shot up the middle to score Towne for a 3-2 lead.