A Look Back: Harrelson talks ’06 North Half series
The memories of defeating West Lauderdale in the 2006 MHSAA Class 4A North Half title series are still vivid for former Lafayette head baseball coach Richy Harrelson.
Harrelson, who is currently an assistant coach at Northeast Mississippi Community College, said he was thinking about the two wins his Commodores had over the Knights eight years ago Thursday. (Editor’s Note: For those that hadn’t been around Harrelson, inspiration and stories has always been a big part of how he coaches, and his experiences build on top of one another, leading to great perspective for the players he’s current involved with).
The first big memory Harrelson had from playing that series, that started down in Collinsville, was how loose the Commodores were when they hit the field, for the second time.
“I actually thought about that series today when I was getting to tell our team (NECC) something up here. I remember when our kids got off the bus. I remembered it had rained and we had to go back down and our guys had seen all those championship signs at the field and they had seen everything those previous teams had done there,” Harrelson said. “Of course they have big-time tradition at that school and Coach (Jerry) Boatner is a legend. I think about how our guys, when we got down there, they kind of looked around and the next thing you know, they’re playing flip in the outfield, playing games, just doing things that baseball kids do.
“I remember sitting there talking with Coach Boatner and him saying to me ‘Coach, your kids look pretty loose.’ I said coach, let me tell you something, I said ‘Those guys out there are worried about two things: They’re worried about duck hunting and baseball.’ He looked at me and his eyes got wide. He was looking at me like he was trying to figure out if I was kidding with me or if I was telling him the truth. That group, they wanted to win now. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a high school group want to win as bad as Lafayette did that year. It wasn’t three or four of them, it was everyone of them.”
Lafayette’s loose attitude was set up perfectly by Harrelson, who told the team prior to the start of the first game, before it was postponed, to look at the championship signs.
“Coach Boatner had like nine or 10 titles at the time, whatever it was. I said ‘Guess what guys, none of those teams are playing this weekend.’ After that they were like ‘Hey, you know what, he’s right.’ The team with Jay Powell and the people of that time weren’t coming back, they were through with baseball,” Harrelson said. “I remember having that conversation with them. That was a neat moment, too.”
The Commodores had played several top-level teams by the time they matched up with the Knights. Vicksburg, Oxford, the defending 4A state champions, Warren Central, Starkville, Columbus and New Hope were just some of the many standout teams Harrelson had scheduled that season in the hopes of being ready for such an important series.
“They had seen the best of the best and they had been there, so (West Lauderdale atmosphere) really didn’t phase them as much as you think it would. Yeah, you get your pre-game jitters, but at the same time, when the first pitch is thrown, you’re playing the same game. You got to deal with those surroundings,” Harrelson said. “Mentally, you got to stick with what you do and do it well.
“I always loved distractions in practice. I loved practicing up on our field because you knew Coach (Jimmy) Murphrey was going to come through and blow his horn at the same time every day. There were going to cars and people coming through and there was softball practice going on,” Harrelson added. “I had to lock them in, and they locked in. I think you can train your mind to do that. The point is even when you go into an environment that’s like LSU or Mississippi State, you just kind of play baseball. You can’t let whoever signed with Ole Miss or Mississippi State affect you.”
Former left-handed standout Justin Woodall, who was drafted by the New York Mets in the 19th round that June and then played football at Alabama for coach Nick Saban, earned the win on the road in the opener. Woodall had already had a great season up to that point, but in that series, and the championship series the next week against Petal, he took it to another level. Harrelson said that Woodall threw almost 130 pitches in that matchup, but only 40 the last four innings after giving Harrelson a sign that he wasn’t to be taken out.
“I remember we were real worried about his pitch count. He was like at 80 pitches in like the fourth or fifth inning. I was real worried about what we were going to do and who we were going to go to and he said ‘Coach, I got this.’ I told him ‘go ahead buddy.’ I do remember that he threw 127 pitches in that game, so for him to finish in the fourth inning with 87, for him to end up with 127, that’s pretty big to cover those last three, four innings right there,” Harrelson said. “He did a really good job. He was a horse now. I still have people ask how good Woodall and Kevin Parker really were to this day. I’ll be out recruiting somewhere and somebody will say ‘Coach, was Justin Woodall really that good? I’ll say absolutely. They were both great.”
Woodall was exceptional, late, in the series opener. Harrelson had so much confidence in him that he refused to pitch around the Knights’ best hitters.
“I remember Cody Freeman was on deck in the sixth inning. I remember the score was 6-4 and I remember Kevin’s dad and (former LHS AD Jeff) Nelson in my ear. They said ‘Rich,Rich, the guy on deck, he’s got 18 home runs.’ I said ‘Alright, that’s fine.’ My roommate in college was there also watching the game and he said ‘Rich, the guy on deck has 18 home runs.’ I turned around and I looked at him and I said ‘Joe, my pitcher on the mound throws 94,”” Harrelson said. “We went right at (Freeman) with fastballs and Woodall struck him out with runners on second and third. And then I turned back to Joe and I said ‘This guy throws 94 from the left side.’ Joe turned back to where Kevin’s dad and Nelson and said ‘He’s got it.’ There was no way we were going to pitch around somebody and walk him when I had Justin Woodall on the mound.”
Freeman struck out six times during that series and never was a factor from an offensive standpoint.
Lafayette swept the Knights in two games, winning the game that sent them to Pearl 12-2. In that game at W.V. Brewer Field, Harrelson’s biggest memory was provided by Taylor Maddux, the Commodores’ number three starter, who also played third base.
“West Lauderdale had a left-handed pitcher on the mound that signed with Southern Miss and played professional baseball for a while. He was a really, really good player and I remember standing on third base and we had a lead, I was like 4-0, and we were playing really well and Taylor looked at me and said ‘Coach, let’s the squeeze here.’ I looked at him and said ‘Taylor, I’ve never squeezed in my life.’ He said ‘C’mon coach, let’s just do it this one time.’ I think it was one of the Webb twins, I can’t remember which one it was, but they laid down a perfect squeeze bunt,” Harrelson said. “After we laid that squeeze down, man, those kids, it was on. They believed they could have beat the Yankees that day. We 10-run them.”
When the series with West Lauderdale was over, Harrelson felt like his team had a good chance of winning the title, even with a perennial power in Petal waiting in the wings.
“The Pontotoc series the week before West Lauderdale was really the toughest one for us. Our guys believed they were going to win, but when it became a reality, they were so focused then on that goal. I don’t know if anybody has ever thought about this, but that team, they beat a Coach Boatner team and then we turn around and beat a Larry Watkins team. Now, for a baseball team, those kids, to accomplish that, to beat those two coaches? That’s two of the best coaches in the history of this state,” Harrelson said.
Watkins started the season with 797 wins and six titles under his belt, according to the school’s website, while Boatner became the all-time winningest coach in the state of Mississippi. He stands at 1,069 wins.
“We went 4-0 on Jerry Boatner and Larry Watkins. Those guys beat two pretty darn-good programs now.”