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Eagles shooting for another title run

Heidelberg’s J. R. Stephenson slides safely into third base as Porters Chapel’s Humphrey Barlow tries to make a tag during the Eagles’ 6-0 loss in Game 2 of the Academy-A state championship game on Thursday afternoon at PCA. (Jon Giffin The Vicksburg Post)

[5/22/04]Moments after the Porters Chapel Academy Eagles had stepped on the field last Monday, the skies darkened and rain poured down.

The passing thunderstorm washed out PCA’s first practice in preparation for the Academy-A state championship series, and looked at the time like an inconvenience.

In hindsight, it might have been an omen.

A team that had failed to score at least 10 runs only three times all season suddenly couldn’t hit the ball at all. Reliable fielders botched routine plays. And, worst of all, personal tragedy crept into the picture.

All of the elements combined to form a train wreck of a series that left the Eagles proud of a fine season, but two wins short of their ultimate goal.

“It was real disappointing,” PCA infielder Humphrey Barlow said. “Our bats went quiet, we didn’t play defense like we had all year, and we weren’t the same team we’ve been all year.”

PCA pounded most of its opponents into submission this season. The Eagles hit .401 as a team through the first 28 games, outscored their opponents 356-62, cruised to a 27-1 record, and seemed poised to repeat as Class A state champs.

The only blemish was a loss to Class AAA power Hillcrest, and the only other team that was close was conference rival Franklin. The Eagles dispatched them in the South State finals, though, winning a close 6-4 decision in Game 1 before outscoring them 19-10 in Game 2.

The stage looked ripe for another classic slugfest between Heidelberg and PCA, but their third meeting in four years was anything but.

PCA committed 10 errors and managed only two hits in a 12-2 Game 1 loss. Game 2 wasn’t much better, as Heidelberg’s Brooks Lewis struck out 14 batters in a 6-0 Rebels win.

In the two-game sweep, PCA hit .102 (5-for-49) as a team, committed 14 errors, and struck out 25 times against Lewis. The senior right-hander threw two complete games against the Eagles, and didn’t allow a runner past second base after Ryan Hoben’s two-out solo home run in the third inning of Game 1 a span of 14 1/3 innings.

“We just had a good time,” Lewis said. “I decided I was going to throw strikes this time. I didn’t throw strikes last time. I did it, and it was just a great team effort.”

Part of PCA’s hitting funk came from a 10-day long deluge that hit Vicksburg. Beginning with that cloudburst last Monday, 9 inches of rain swamped the city and kept the Eagles off the practice field for all but two days.

They also had to cope with the death of assistant coach and athletic director Bubba Mims, who died at his home on Sunday. The emotional toll was draining, and left even the businesslike Eagles silent during most of Game 2.

“It was tough to get mentally prepared and physically prepared. It’s been a draining week,” Barlow said.

Even during their lowest point, however, there was reason for the Eagles to be proud and hopeful.

The team did go 27-3, coach Randy Wright pointed out, and won its third South State title in four years. PCA also ran its conference winning streak to 38 games and capped a two-year stretch in which it won 56 out of 62 games a gaudy .903 percentage and went 10-3 in playoff games.

“We’re not going to sit around and feel sorry for ourselves. We went 27-3 and we had a great year,” Wright said. “We’re going to get to put some more signs on the outfield fence, and we’ve got a lot to be proud of.”

The PCA faithful also got a glimpse of the future in Game 2, when freshman phenom Michael Busby threw three innings of scoreless relief.

Busby overpowered the Rebels with a fastball that topped out at 90 mph, and confounded them with a sharp breaking ball. He struck out five, allowed one hit, and left many onlookers in awe.

Busby, who also hit .433 this season, will lead a crop of young players that should continue PCA’s winning tradition.

Six senior starters graduate from this year’s team, but a number of talented freshman and sophomores many of whom played for Bubba Mims on the Culkin Critters youth team that won three Dizzy Dean state titles are ready to move into their spots next year. Center fielder Gerald Mims and catcher Rob Quimby also will return.

“I see nothing but us getting better,” said Gerald Mims, who will be a junior next year. “We’ve got a group of boys coming up that have been taught right. They know how to win and handle it when they lose. You can’t beat confidence. The group we’ve got coming up, no matter what sport they’re playing, they’re full of confidence.”

It’s a similar situation to 2001, when PCA lost to Heidelberg in the state finals with a large senior class. Two years later, the young players from that team won the school’s first state championship and returned to the finals this season.

A move to the weaker North half of the state bracket should also help, as will large senior classes at Heidelberg and Franklin, PCA’s two main rivals for the state title.

“We’ve got a great opportunity in the next three years to be sitting right here in the same spot we’re in right now,” Wright said. “We’ve done a great job of building a program here. Our goal is just to keep everybody together, and I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be right back here next year and for the next several years.”