Warren Central puts a bow on baseball season with college signing ceremony

Published 6:35 pm Wednesday, May 29, 2024

A few days after their season ended in front of a couple thousand cheering fans at Trustmark Park, the Warren Central Vikings wrote a quiet epilogue to their 2024 baseball season.

Five players who had signed with college programs in November — Ryan Nelson, Cole Autrey, Brooks Willoughby, Cade Fairley and Conner Watkins — gathered one last time Wednesday to commemorate all of their achievements with a ceremony in Warren Central’s football fieldhouse.

“It’s awesome. We’re really the one percent that made it,” said Autrey, who signed with Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. “A lot of the guys on our team are going to the next level. It’s pretty fun and I’m ready to get the grind back on.”

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Autrey transferred from St. Al for his senior year and helped the Vikings reach the MHSAA Class 6A championship series for the first time since 2001. The first baseman and designated hitter belted three home runs, including the game-winner in a 1-0 victory over Saltillo in Game 3 in the second round, and had 19 RBIs and 19 runs scored.

Autrey said Gulf Coast was where he wanted to go after playing a couple of summer tournaments on the campus.

“The campus is super nice. The dorms are nice. The field is super nice. I love the coaches down there. All-around, it was where I wanted to go from the start,” Autrey said.

Autrey was among four Warren Central players who signed with Mississippi junior colleges. Nelson is headed to East Central, Fairley to Hinds, and Watkins to Copiah-Lincoln.

Willoughby accepted a Division I offer from Southern Miss, which he said he was “thankful” for. The left-hander had his junior season cut short by a shoulder injury and spent much of this spring playing his way back into shape. He finished with a 5-2 record, a 1.34 ERA and a team-high 87 strikeouts in 53 2/3 innings.

“At any point they could’ve said, ‘Look, Brooks, you just can’t do it,’ and found someone else. But they stuck with me and gave me a chance,” Willoughby said. “I fully believe that God had a part in that and had His hand in there because there was a long period of time where I was not doing too good. I had some rough games. They still stuck with me and gave me a chance, and I’m thankful for that.”

Fairley, Nelson and Watkins all said they made their choices based on feel and fit with their respective teams.
Watkins played pitcher and shortstop for Warren Central, and will get a chance to do both at Co-Lin. He batted .323 this season, with 24 RBIs and 21 runs scored, and on the mound pitched a team-high 72 2/3 innings with 73 strikeouts.

“I went on multiple visits and they were all nice and kind. But at the end of the day you have to choose what fits best for you. I just felt like that was home and that was the place for me,” Watkins said.

Fairley, a three-year starter in right field, said Hinds’ excellent track record of sending players on to four-year programs swayed his decision. Fairley batted .284 this season, with 10 doubles, two home runs and 30 RBIs. He scored 26 runs.

“I like the coaches. They have consistently put players at the next level, and that’s the goal is to continue my career,” he said. “I felt like they would give me the best opportunity.”

The second baseman Nelson, meanwhile, was excited for the opportunity to join not only one of the best junior college programs in the country.

East Central is ranked No. 1 and carried a 53-8 record into an elimination game Wednesday night against Madison College in the NJCAA Division II World Series.

“They were the first team to offer me, back in July. We went up there for a workout and they took me on a tour of the facility as well,” said Nelson, who scored 39 runs this season and had a .471 on-base percentage. “Loved the baseball field. The coach had been there for 17 years, so I feel like they’ve got a good coaching staff. He almost reminds me of Coach Broome — they’re hard on their players and I feel like they can develop me really good as a player.”

The five seniors helped spark the Vikings to their best season in two decades, while also forming a bond that will last longer than that.

“I’m going to miss all of the guys,” Nelson said. “No matter if we argue that day, we’re still going to be close friends. We fight that day, we’re still going to be brothers. That was just our bond as a team, and we did a lot of things this year.”

In addition to finishing as the Class 6A runner-up, four of the Vikings’ five seniors were selected to the Mississippi Association of Coaches All-State team. Willoughby and Watkins were on the first team, while Nelson and Fairley were on the second team.

Junior third baseman and pitcher Maddox Lynch also made the first team.

Willoughby said that what the 2024 Vikings accomplished was not taken for granted.

“It’s awesome to see other people doing it with us. We’re all going to play at the next level. It’s really awesome that there are five of us. That’s a lot of people to go play at the next level,” Willoughby said. “When you look at the statistics, one percent go on to college. More than one percent of Warren Central’s baseball team is going to play at the next level. Great team, great coaching.”

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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