Kings of the hill: Pitchers powering Warren Central’s playoff run

Published 4:00 am Sunday, May 19, 2024

Warren Central pitchers Conner Watkins, Brooks Willoughby and Maddox Lynch insist they’re not trying to one-up or outdo the others every time they take the mound.

It just sort of happens.

All three have thrown shutouts during the Vikings’ playoff run, each more dominant than the last. The chain of outstanding outings has brought them to the doorstep of a state title, with a berth in the MHSAA Class 6A championship series against George County.

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“I wouldn’t call it one-upping each other. If it’s competition it’s friendly competition,” Watkins said. “I think we’re just going out there and doing the best we can. Just trying to one-up ourselves, and doing it for each other and for the team.”

Watkins will get the ball for Game 1 of the 6A finals against George County (29-4) on Wednesday at 4 p.m. at Trustmark Park in Pearl. He’s become not the ace for the Vikings (21-12), but one of three that they’re ready to deploy in their quest for the school’s first title since 2001.

Watkins got the ball rolling with a 75-pitch, complete-game shutout in the first-round opener against Lake Cormorant, which the Vikings won 1-0. It was the kind of game that might live on in history, except it quickly faded into memory because of the efforts of his teammates.

In Game 3 of a second-round series against Saltillo, Lynch threw a three-hit shutout that only required only 72 pitches. Willoughby followed that up with a no-hitter in a 5-0 victory that clinched the North State championship last weekend.

“When Watkins threw Game 1 in seven innings and 75 pitches and we won 1-0, we were wild. We’ll never see that again. Then, lo and behold, four games later here comes Maddox and does it again in 72 pitches,” Warren Central coach Randy Broome said. “At this level, where we’re at and in this stage, obviously it starts with the guys on the mound.”

Willoughby said the guys behind the pitchers have done their part as well. Warren Central has turned five doubles plays in its seven playoff games. It’s been a nice complement to the pitching staff that hasn’t allowed a run in 20 of its last 21 innings.

“We couldn’t have done it without the fielders behind us,” Willoughby said. “There’s been so many double plays turned that got us out of pickles, and big outs that were made that got that pitch count down. As a pitching staff all we try to do is fill up the zone and let our fielders behind us make the plays. They’ve done a good job.”

Willoughby was pitching well in 2023 until a shoulder injury ended his season in March. Broome said the left-hander’s absence hurt the depth of the rotation and might have derailed another potential championship run.

“We felt like last year, with a healthy Willoughby, we had a real chance at making a run because we had the pitchers to put on the mound,” Broome said.

Willoughby was brought along slowly this season as he worked his arm back into shape. The Game 3 no-hitter against Center Hill was his longest outing of the season.

Even if he hasn’t thrown a full seven innings in most of his starts, Willoughby has been a top of the rotation starter. He has a 5-2 record, with a 1.34 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 45 innings. He’s allowed three runs in his last nine appearances, and not more than one run in any of them. He also has two saves.

The Southern Miss signee said his season-ending injury last season helped him to appreciate this success even more.

“It’s definitely a big blessing. I would always say you don’t know what you have until you lose it. Sometimes I feel like I took that for granted in the past, and when I lost it it gave me a lot of hunger for it,” Willoughby said. “Now that I’m back and with the team it’s a lot of fun. I appreciate it now more than I did then.”

Broome added that Willoughby’s work-in-progress rehab for much of the season had a hidden benefit. It allowed two sophomore pitchers, Nathaniel Moore and Ryan Steed, to finish some games and get valuable varsity innings.

Moore and Steed have pitched a combined 29 innings in 17 appearances. Moore allowed two runs in three innings in a 7-3 loss to Saltillo in Game 1 of the second-round series.

Broome said Moore’s solid performance kept the Vikings in that game and helped save other arms for later in the series. It also gave the coach some confidence he’ll be ready if needed against George County.

“During that time of making sure it was done right, you’ve got a Watkins and a Lynch that stepped in there. You had some guys that had to fill that void that Brooks would’ve been in early on. Now we’re reaping the benefits of it,” Broome said. “There’s no such thing as too many arms.”

Lynch has been the No. 3 starter in the rotation, although that’s less a ranking and more of a fact that one of the three aces has to be in that spot.

Lynch is 4-0 this season with one save, and 65 strikeouts in 41 2/3 innings. In his series-clinching gem against Saltillo in round two, he allowed three hits and no walks while striking out eight.

“It was all falling into place on the mound,” he said.

Like his teammates, Lynch said all three pitchers have been inspiring each other rather than directly competing. It’s part of a team-first approach that Broome has tried to stamp on the program and that seems to have really taken hold with this group of players.

“It’s nice that it hasn’t been just a one-man show. All of our pitchers have been going at it and we’ve all had equally good games,” Lynch said. “We haven’t really talked about it, but it’s inspiring everybody.”

Having so many quality arms heading into a best-of-three championship series is a key asset for the Vikings. They’ll carry a 13-inning scoreless streak into Trustmark Park, and only allowed one hit in that span. Besides giving confidence to their own team, Watkins said it provided an intimidation factor to opponents.

“It’s great to have,” Watkins said. “It’s something that makes the other team think, ‘We’ve got to find something to work around.’ It’s definitely something good to have.”

Broome said it was the kind of group that only comes around once in a generation.

Broome was an assistant coach with the 2001 state championship team that included future first-round major league draft pick Taylor Tankersley, future Ferriss Trophy winner Brian Pettway and Carl Upton. Broome said the postseason dominance of Watkins, Willoughby and Lynch is giving off the same kind of vibes.

“Maybe in ‘01 with Tankersley, Upton and Pettway. But since then, having a legit three guys that you know are going to pound the zone, know are going to compete, are going to give you a really good chance to win, we haven’t had that,” Broome said. “To have those guys compete day in and day out when their number’s called, and give your team a chance to win, hat’s off to them. It’s really a good feeling when we only need to score one run to win.”

MHSAA 6A championship
At Trustmark Park, Pearl
Game 1 – May 22, 4 p.m.
Game 2 – May 24, 4 p.m.
Game 3 – May 25, TBA
• Tickets are $15 per day and are available through
For the full MHSAA championship week schedule, click here

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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