Cream of the Crop: With a wealth of experience, Porters Chapel is poised for a title run

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 24, 2003

Porters Chapel coach Randy Wright, foreground, takes a senior-laden team and an Academy ranking in pursuit of a state championship. (Melanie Duncan ThortisThe Vicksburg Post)

Anticipation is high for this season at Porters Chapel Academy. Expectations are even higher.

After four straight playoff appearances, including one that resulted in a trip to the state finals, nothing less than a state championship is good enough any more.

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Randy Wright knows this, but just shrugs at the suggestion that there is any extra pressure on his team. After all, the PCA coach’s expectations are higher than anyone’s.

“We don’t feel any pressure. We come into every season expecting to win a state title … We expect to win. This program is at a point to where every time we step on the field, we expect to win,” Wright said. “Our goal is to win a district championship and a state championship. If we don’t reach those goals, we don’t feel like we’ve done what we set out to do.”

Wright’s attitude is one that has been eight years in the making. It took him three seasons to get PCA into the playoffs, but the Eagles haven’t been left home for the postseason since.

“It’s been the same since we’ve been out here. He’s not going to let us lose,” said senior Andrew Embry, a pitcher and first baseman who has started for Wright since he was an eighth-grader. “If we do lose, he’s going to yell at us a little and then we’re going to come out here and work on it in practice.”

The success of the past few years has created not just the expectation of more, but a craving for it. None of PCA’s current group of players has ever missed the playoffs, and they aren’t about to start now.

After getting within one win of a state championship in 2001, then losing in the second round last season, nothing short of bringing home a ring will do.

“We’ve had the same people on the field for three years and we’ve gotten close. Now we’re all seniors, and it feels like if we don’t win we’ve done all of this for nothing,” said third baseman Josh Rush, who hit .456 with three home runs and 29 RBIs last season.

The goals are the same this season, but the Eagles have even more reason to feel like they can achieve them.

Eight starters from last year’s playoff team return, including the top two pitchers and top three hitters. Other than shortstop, where last year’s starter T.J. Smith graduated, and second base, where returning starter Aaron Curry is recovering from a dislocated kneecap suffered in practice last month, it’s hard to find many holes in PCA’s lineup.

Six of the eight returning starters hit .293 or better last season, and pitchers Ryan Hoben and Embry both had ERAs under 2.20. Senior Joseph Ivey (5-1, 3.66 ERA, 45 strikeouts, 42-1/3 innings in 2002) adds a solid third arm to the rotation.

“I think we’re equally as strong hitting and pitching-wise. I expect us to hit all the way through the lineup, and our pitching to be very strong,” Wright said. “We’re three-deep at catcher. On the corners, we’re solid. We just have some question marks in the middle infield that we have to shore up.”

All of the Eagles’ firepower finally has them flying above the radar, however, and right into the crosshairs of some of the state’s best teams.

After years of trying to earn respect, the PCA program has it with a No. 9 ranking in the Clarion-Ledger’s preseason poll of Academy teams. PCA is the top-ranked Academy-A team, and is ranked in the poll for the first time in Wright’s tenure.

“We’re very proud. We take it very seriously, and I think it’s definitely a sign of respect to where the program has gotten now,” Wright said of the ranking. “It’s very nice to be recognized statewide. It’s definitely an accomplishment for the program.”

The schedule will also make finishing among the state’s elite teams an accomplishment. The Eagles will play three of the top eight teams in the academy poll Hillcrest, Simpson and Magnolia Heights in the first two weeks of the season. Two games against No. 10 University Christian are set for later in the year.

Conference games against Deer Creek, Humphreys, Greenville Christian and Franklin will also be difficult. All four teams made the playoffs last season, and Deer Creek is the defending Class A champion.

“There’s five teams in our district that not only made it, but advanced in the playoffs last year, so we definitely expect our district to be the toughest in Class A in the state,” Wright said. “You’re looking at some good baseball teams in Class A that are going to stay home coming out of our district.”

Just don’t expect one of those teams staying home to be PCA, if Wright and the Eagles have anything to say about it.

“It just doesn’t seem right if we don’t do it,” Rush said of winning a state title. “We feel like we need to do it. We’ve gone all the way to the championship game, as close as you can. Now we’re all seniors and we feel like we need to be there.”