Vikings prep for Cougars

Published 11:00 am Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Northwest Rankin, as usual, will begin its playoff run this week with impressive credentials.

The Cougars boast a 25-3 record and won the Division 4-6A championship. A half-dozen of their players have signed with junior colleges or four-year schools. They’re scoring nearly nine runs per game and their deep pitching staff is giving up less than two.

In a parity-filled North half of the Class 6A bracket, the Cougars are the closest thing there is to a bonafide juggernaut. And, as far as Warren Central is concerned, they’re the next obstacle on the path to a state championship.

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WC gets its shot at Northwest Rankin when the teams open a second-round series Thursday night in Flowood. While respecting Northwest’s accomplishments, WC coach Josh Abraham said his team won’t be in awe or intimidated heading into Game 1.

“Both teams play a lot of the same style of baseball. They’re 25-3 and we’re 17-13,” Abraham said. “They’re not overpowering at all. They run the bases and pitch and throw strikes just like we do.”

Abraham said some of his confidence stems from past success against Northwest Rankin. The Vikings have won just one game in four tries since Abraham became coach in 2009, but among the three losses are a one-run defeat in 2010 and a competitive 6-2 loss in 2009.

“We feel really good. We’ve had some success against Northwest Rankin in recent years,” Abraham said. “We’ll take our pitching staff against anybody in the North, and we feel like it can be competitive series.”

Northwest Rankin easily won this year’s regular-season meeting with WC, 14-1 on April 13. It was hardly indicative of what’s to come in the playoff rematch, however.

WC threw its No. 4 pitcher, Cameron Upton, while Northwest Rankin used Greg Foster — a Jackson State signee, but also third on its depth chart. The Vikings also committed five errors and were in the middle of a stretch in which they lost seven of eight games.

Both teams likely gleaned some firsthand scouting tips, but neither saw the other’s best.

“We didn’t know it was going to happen, playing them again. We had a bad stretch. We’re well-prepared now. We’re going to show our best,” WC first baseman Will Stegall said.

Warren Central emphatically shook off its late-season slump by routing Port Gibson in the regular-season finale, then sweeping Columbus in the first round of the playoffs. WC has outscored the opposition 28-6 during that three-game winning streak.

Stegall said the Columbus series was a jolt for the Vikings. They scored five runs in the bottom of the first inning in Game 1, seemingly getting back to their midseason form. Now, however, they have to treat every series like a new season unto itself.

“That gave us a lot of confidence. We were squaring balls up against them. We were disciplined at the plate and kept our errors down,” Stegall said. “Everybody is back now to 0-0. We’re 2-0 and they’re 0-0. It feels like we’re at an advantage, but they’re not going to give it to us.”