St. Al travels tough road to Trustmark Flashes go for repeat vs. Myrtle

Published 12:12 pm Monday, May 24, 2010

The St. Aloysius Flashes hadn’t even made it to the parking lot at Trustmark Park last season before players, fans and coaches started talking about their chances to repeat as Class 1A champions.

When they return to Trustmark on Tuesday afternoon to start the 2010 Class 1A finals against Myrtle, it will have been a lot tougher road than they expected when they drove away last May.

The Flashes have dealt with injuries and slumps that were nowhere to be found when they cruised to a 28-4 record in 2009. They faced an early elimination but found a way to win. And they’re still standing, ready to defend their crown.

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“It’s a great experience. Probably the best of my life, knowing we have a chance at back-to-back state championships,” said St. Al pitcher Stephen Evans, who will start Game 1 of the finals. “Probably the second time is better, just because it’s a lot harder to repeat.”

All of the Flashes can attest to that.

Ryno Martin-Nez, last year’s starting shortstop and No. 2 pitcher, and utility infielder Justin Rushing both missed large chunks of this season with injuries. Their young replacements played well for a while but tailed off toward the end of the season — right about the time the Flashes went into a funk and lost six of their last nine regular-season games.

St. Al then lost its playoff opener to Edinburg before turning things around.

Beginning with two straight elimination games against Edinburg, the Flashes won six consecutive playoff games to reach the Class 1A finals for the second straight year. During the winning streak, the pitching staff has allowed a total of eight runs.

“It’s been the toughest year we’ve ever had. But that’s why you coach,” said Clint Wilkerson, now in his sixth season as St. Al’s coach. “I look back through the trials and tribulations and putting guys in different places. It’s like the pieces of a puzzle and we found the right pieces at the right time.”

One big hurdle still stands between the Flashes (20-7) and another championship celebration — Myrtle (20-9), which has not lost a playoff game and won eight straight games overall.

The Hawks are led by the one-two punch of Jimel Judon, an Ole Miss signee who hit .397 with 11 home runs in the regular season, and Beau Cummings (.478, three home runs, 34 RBIs). Wilkerson was particularly impressed with Judon, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound first baseman and pitcher.

“I saw him play in the State Games against top-level competition, and he’s the real deal. If you leave a fastball up, he’ll lose it,” Wilkerson said.

The Hawks have a lot more firepower than just their two stars, though. Five regulars are hitting .340 or better, they stole 34 bases as a team in their first 22 games and average more than nine runs per game.

“I don’t think it’s one of those situations where if you get past the first five or six guys you can catch a break in the order,” Wilkerson said. “One through nine is scrappy. They do a lot of the same things Natchez (Cathedral) does, like hit and run, bunt and steal bases. We’re going to have to keep them off the bases.”

If Evans and Martin-Nez, the likely starting pitchers for the championship series, can do that, then the Flashes will have another victory party in Trustmark Park’s spacious outfield. If not, they’ll have to watch someone else enjoy the moment.

However it turns out, Wilkerson said, the way the season has played out won’t diminish what the Flashes accomplished just by getting back inside the dugout at Trustmark.

“Sometimes you don’t want to see it end. It’s been so fun,” Wilkerson said. “The good thing is we’re going to be at that beautiful park. However it turns out I’m going to be proud of those guys.”