Tankersley finishes prep career on top, eyes future

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 5, 2001

[06/04/01] Taylor Tankersley calmly scooped up the dribbling ground ball as the Warren Central faithful who packed Hattiesburg’s Smokie Harrington Park started their celebration.

He stepped toward first base and paused for a full second. Then stomped on the bag with his left foot, putting the final touch on the coveted prize he and the Vikings had worked for.

But the pause …

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“My first thought was, Yes, we did it,’ ” Tankersley said. “But my second thought was, No, it’s over.'”

Four years of grueling practices, 114 wins, playoff disappointments and successes had finally come to an end for the most dominating pitcher in the state.

“After the game, when we were emotional, his statement was, Coach, I didn’t want to step on it, but I knew if I didn’t, you’d kill me,’ ” said a chuckling Sam Temple, who has coached Tankersley since he arrived at WC as a 5-foot-nothing, 120-pound freshman. “Four years of everything flashed in front of his eyes and he said he had to think about it.

“If being a part of this program meant that he had to pause before he stepped on the bag for the state championship … we’ve done something right.”

There wasn’t much Tankersley, now a 6-1, 195-pound Alabama signee, didn’t do right during the Vikings’ state championship season. Although he made the final out of his high school career while playing first base, it was on the mound where he struck fear into his opponents.

Tankersley’s overpowering pitching which saw him throw eight straight shutouts, have a 0.44 ERA while striking out 165 in 95 innings and collecting a perfect 13-0 record made him a unanimous choice as the Vicksburg Post Player of the Year one year after not even making the paper’s All-County Team.

Of those stats, however, Tankersley’s shutout streak was the most impressive. Starting on March 16 against Louisiana powerhouse Airline, the “Tank” ran over, through and around the meat of the Vikings’ schedule.

He recorded three shutouts of Madison Central and one each against Northwest Rankin, Parkview Baptist (La.), Starkville and archrival Vicksburg High. Parkview was the No. 1 team in Louisiana Class 3A at the time, and each of the opponents except Starkville and Vicksburg was ranked.

In all, Tankersley tossed nine shutouts, including a five-inning no-hitter against the rival Gators. His first game against Brookhaven, he was replaced in the fifth inning because he was on a strict pitch-count, but had not given up a run.

“It took a lot of luck. Any streak comes with luck. Joe D. didn’t hit in 56 straight games without some luck,” said Tankersley, referring to Joe DiMaggio’s record-setting hitting streak in 1941.

Tankersley’s streak, which fell three shutouts short of the national record (11) set by South Natchez’s Joey Porter in 1973, was not a frequent topic of conversation, Temple said.

“We are all sitting here after the season is over and are starting to admire some of the things that were accomplished this season,” Temple said. ” … At no time during this season did we stop and say wow!’ We let our wow be at the end of the season.

“Now, a month later, it finally dawned on me about the streak and who it was against. During the season, we were always worried about the next game. Our focus stayed on what’s next.

“Now, I sit back and it’s like, Wow.’ ”

Some nights Tankersley seemed human on the mound without his biting breaking ball, nasty cut fastball and consistent 86 mph fastball. Each time, though, his competitive juices got him through it.

“My focus was on winning games,” Tankersley said. “Last year, I didn’t have that focus, but this season I realized what had to be done.”

Now Tankersley, who is spending his summer cutting grass and giving private baseball lessons to a 9-year-old, gets to think about his future.

With Tuesday’s major league draft looming, Tankersley must decide between the pros or college if he gets the call. Kansas City, Philadelphia and Baltimore are most interested in the lefty, who is expected to be drafted anywhere between the fourth and 15th rounds.

Alabama landed the standout student he carries a 3.95 GPA before his senior year even started, and his dream is to still play in the College World Series.

“I really look forward to going to college and playing SEC ball,” Tankersley said. “I’d only give it up with a deal that is so good I can’t pass it up.”

Tankersley would not say what exactly is “so good,” but he did say the decision is his alone. Temple has also taken a reserved approach to Tankersley’s prospects.

“When it comes to the draft, Taylor and I really have never discussed it,” Temple said. “That decision is so far beyond me that I feel like I have no right getting into that conversation with him. I was his high school baseball coach who tried to give him everything I could to help him become who he’s become.”

Temple has little doubts about his most dominating pitcher’s future.

“It’s nice to see a 6-1, 195-pound pitcher who some people consider the best in the state come from a 120-pound 5-foot-8 ninth-grader who spent more time in my office or on the hill with a sling blade than he did practicing,” Temple said. “It’s nice to see him mature.

“… Taylor will be successful no matter what he chooses to do.”