By Gene Phelps/NEMS Daily Journal
INDEPENDENCE – Kossuth catcher Tyler Mercer sat in the dugout between innings of his team’s marathon Class 3A North Mississippi playoff game Sunday against Independence.
Teammate Elijah Potts was amazed by the player’s stamina.
“How are you doing it?” a concerned Potts asked.
“It’s only the ninth inning,” Mercer told him.
“No, it’s the 12th,” Potts replied.
Mercer would work six more innings behind the plate, but it was worth all the effort. Kossuth, on the strength of the arm and bat of its lone senior, Josh Whitaker, defeated Independence 5-4 in 18 innings. The nearly five-hour game under the stars in Tate County was the second longest in state history.
The state’s longest high school game was 20 innings played between Corinth and Meridian in 1979.
The North champion Aggies (19-13) advanced to the MHSAA state championship series for the second straight season. They’ll play South champion Sumrall in a best-of-three game series this week at Trustmark Park in Pearl.
The first game is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Thursday. The second game is at 4:30 p.m. Friday.
Southeast Lauderdale defeated Kossuth in last year’s state championship series.
“Our guys didn’t give up. It was like this the whole season – they were relentless,” Kossuth coach Daniel Threadgill said. “Independence fought us tooth and nail.”
Independence (20-11) won the series opener 2-0 on Thursday at home. Kossuth rallied to win the second game, 6-3, Saturday on its home turf.
Whitaker had five hits, including a single in the top of the 18th to plate the eventual winning run. His hit scored Jacob Wilcher, who had doubled to the gap in right center field, then advanced to third on a passed ball.
“I had struggled all night,” said Wilcher, a freshman centerfielder. “I wanted to put the ball in play. When I did, I ran as fast as I could.
“It felt really good to score. I had confidence in Josh when he came up.”
Whitaker’s performance on the mound was equally impressive. In 12 innings of relief, he gave up six hits, struck out eight and retired the Wildcats in order in six innings.
“I just had to keep pitching. I had to finish the job,” Whitaker said.
Threadgill went to Whitaker’s father, Terry, during the late innings. “He asked me if he needed to pull Josh,” Terry Whitaker said. “I told him I wanted Josh to pitch it out.”
Threadgill consulted with his pitcher between innings.
“I look at two things in this situation – is he still locating pitches for strikes and is he getting his breaking ball over for strikes. He was doing both,” Threadgill said. “Josh wanted it; he was fine.”
Whitaker’s 12 innings will count against his 17-inning limit in this week’s title series, but as Threadgill noted: “We don’t have a shot to win state if we’re not down there.”
Added Whitaker, “I wasn’t coming off that mound until it was over.”
• Kossuth entered the seventh inning down 4-2, but rallied to tie the score on a single by Mercer and a fielding error in the outfield by the Wildcats.
• Independence relief pitcher Leemarcus Boyd recorded 13 strikeouts and gave up just four hits in 91⁄3 innings. “We have nothing to hang our heads about,” he said.
• Threadgill was ejected in the sixth inning for questioning a call at second base. “I’ve never been involved in an 18-inning game; I only coached six tonight,” he said, then laughed.
• Kossuth lost eight seniors, seven starters and all its pitching staff from the 2012 team. “We’re not supposed to be here,” Threadgill said.