Pascagoula went 31-5 in 1996, beating Tupelo in three games in the championship series. Just as they are now, the Panthers were driven by pitching, riding the right arms of juniors Blair Varnes and John Jordan to the title.
"Every time Blair and John took the mound, we had the chance to be a dominant team," said Johnny Olsen, Pascagoula's coach from 1984-2010. "Those two guys came on as freshmen and by the time they were juniors they were tough to beat. They pitched with confidence and they just wanted the ball."
Varnes went 15-0 in 1996 while Jordan was 9-2. The two combined to throw every inning for the Panthers during the playoffs, allowing just 13 runs in nine games.
After barreling through the regular season at 23-4, Pascagoula swept Wayne County, Brandon and Hattiesburg in succession to set up a showdown with Tupelo. State championship series were home-and-home affairs in those days, and the first game of the 1996 title series was at Tupelo on a Thursday night.
Varnes went the first five innings and Jordan threw the last two in an 8-0 Panthers victory. Games 2 and 3 were on Saturday afternoon at Pascagoula's Ingalls Field, and more than 3,000 fans turned out to watch -- filling up the stands, the grassy area beyond left field and even the upper reaches of War Memorial Stadium, the Panthers' football stadium that overlooks the baseball field.
Tupelo freshman Justin Bounds beat Jordan 5-0 in Game 2, but Varnes came back with a complete-game, 12-strikeout performance to win the clincher. Left fielder Jonathan Broadus provided the key hit with a two-run double.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Varnes said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "Some of the best memories of my life are playing high school baseball with all those guys I grew up with. ... I just threw strikes and we had a great defense and we could hit. It was almost hard to lose when you've got that kind of team behind you. We all grew up playing together, and it was almost like we were on the same team for 15 years."
Olsen resigned during the 2010 season after 562 victories, but he never got back to the state finals. He's taken great pleasure in watching former assistant Richie Tillman coach this year's team, and his son, senior pitcher Taylor Olsen, is 10-0 heading into the finals against Hernando.
"I've coached Taylor during the summers, and all these seniors I've had a hand in coaching them at one point or another growing up," Olsen said. "I'd much rather be out there on the field, but I'm so proud of Taylor and rest of them and what they've been able to accomplish."
Varnes was one of more than a half-dozen 1996 Pascagoula players who went on to play college baseball. Jordan and Broadus both went to junior college before finishing up at Southern Miss, while Enrico Jones played four years at Mississippi State.
Chris Fishburn saw time at both New Orleans and USM, while catcher Jared Becker played at Louisiana-Lafayette. Several others played in junior college or the small-school level.
Varnes signed with Florida State and, after missing his freshman year due to elbow surgery, was a four-year standout for the Seminoles. He enjoyed national acclaim for pitching in (though losing) the 1999 College World Series championship game despite a torn ACL suffered during FSU's celebration after winning the NCAA regional.
Varnes had offers to play professionally following his FSU career, but decided he'd had enough baseball after surgeries on his elbow, knee and shoulder. Now 33 and married with three sons, he got into the real estate business for a while, and these days works selling extended car service contracts in the San Diego area.
"I knew the writing was on the wall after college," Varnes said. "I was throwing probably 87, 88 (mph) and I got offers to play minor-league ball for $1,000. My arm was hurting every time I threw. I won the last game I pitched in college in the (2002) Super Regional and I wanted to go out on top.
"But the crowd and the energy and excitement around Pascagoula baseball is something I'll never forget. I wish I was there to watch them now."