PCA starts playoffs today at 6|[4/19/05]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 19, 2005

At best, this was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Porters Chapel Academy.

Eight starters were gone from last season’s state runner-up team, the young players replacing them were long on potential but short on experience, and there was only one proven pitcher on the roster.

A funny thing happened on the way to mediocrity, though. The Eagles’ bats came around sooner than expected. They found a few more arms to back up ace Michael Busby. And the rebuilding year turned into just another year.

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PCA (18-4) will begin its quest for a second Academy-A state championship in three seasons when it opens the playoffs tonight at home against Lee, Ark. It’s the seventh straight year PCA has been in the playoffs.

“I think it’s better than we thought we’d do,” second baseman Judd Mims said. “It had to be eight people stepping up and filling each other’s shoes. It’s a big accomplishment to step up and improve so much in so short a time.”

The biggest improvement has been made at the plate.

Excluding Busby, PCA’s only returning starter from last season, the Eagles’ current starting lineup was a combined 8-for-26 in 2004. They have come on strong this spring, amassing a .386 team batting average.

Six players are hitting over .400 and only one starter is below .340. The Eagles have hit nearly half as many home runs than last season – only 15, compared to 36 in 2004 – but still have outscored opponents 203-95.

“I did not expect us to hit the ball as well as we’ve hit it,” PCA coach Randy Wright said. “They have exceeded expectations as far as swinging the bats.”

That’s made life easier on PCA’s pitchers. Busby and No. 2 starter Hayden Hales, who will start Games 1 and 2 of the series with Lee, respectively, are a combined 11-1 this season.

Busby has allowed only two earned runs in 29 innings, while Hales has given up six in 34 1/3 innings. Between them, the sophomores are averaging nearly two strikeouts per inning.

“I think our two sophomores have done an outstanding job,” Wright said. “They pitch well enough to give us an opportunity to win every time out.”

With two strong starters, PCA should be a favorite to reach the state finals for the fourth time in five years. The Mississippi Private Schools Association changed the playoff format from a Tuesday-Friday setup – with a doubleheader on Friday – to a three-day, Tuesday-Thursday-Friday arrangement.

The new format should give teams like the Eagles, with a bonafide stopper in Busby and a strong pitcher like Hales, a distinct advantage in the playoffs.

It also helps that the Eagles will play the first game of the best-of-three series at home. In the past, Game 1 was at the lower-seeded team’s field and Games 2 and 3, if necessary, were at the higher seed. Now, Games 1 and 3 will be at the higher seed – this week, and through most of the playoffs, that will be PCA.

“We were definitely for the new format. I think it makes sense all the way around, and it’s definitely an advantage for us,” Wright said. “I’ve never felt like having to travel for that first game is home-field advantage.”