SPRINGVILLE – Vindication is a great feeling, especially knowing you’re getting it for yourself. Just ask Sam Cruse.
The South Pontotoc senior’s single to center field with one out in the bottom of the seventh inning scored Lance Carter and gave the Cougars a 10-9 victory over the Mooreville Troopers.
Cruse’s fourth single of the game gave South Pontotoc the deciding third game in the best-of-three MHSAA Class 3A North baseball championship Monday night at a rain-soaked Cougar Field.
The Cougars (22-13) advance to the best-of-three state championship series which opens Thursday at TrustMark Park in Pearl.
Mooreville ends its season at 25-12.
This will be the Cougars’ first trip to the state finals under fourth-year manager Bryan Buckner and the school’s first title series berth since 1996.
“There’s really no better way to end it,” said Cruse, who delivered the game-winning hit in his final career at-bat at Cougar Field. “I felt like I was not going to be out. We’ve come this far and I wasn’t going to see it end.”
“I didn’t doubt that we would come back,” Buckner said. “I felt good with us sending the top of the order to the plate in the seventh.”
Seth Roye opened the South Pontotoc seventh with a walk and went to second when Lance Carter was hit by a pitch. After David Bowen was hit by a pitch to load the bases, Mooreville reliever Ben Kingsley retired the next hit on a soft liner to first base, but then hit Tanner Luttrell with a pitch to force in Roye with the tying run.
Cruse then lined a 1-0 pitch off Kingsley (10-3) up the middle for the game-winning hit.
“We didn’t throw strikes (in the seventh inning),” Troopers manager Rex Berryman said. “It was a small strike zone all night. We just couldn’t find it.”
Cruse’s clutch single came after he saw an 8-6 lead slip through his hands as Mooreville plated three runs in the top of the seventh.
With one out, a single by Tyler Autrey and consecutive walks to Gary Johnson, Kingsley and Channing – all off reliever Heath Kitchens – scored the inning’s first run to pull the Troopers to within 8-7.
After a pitching change that brought on Cruse, Tyler Moore then lined a shot that hit off the glove of the Cougars shortstop and into left field to score Johnson and Kingsley to put Mooreville in the lead.
As they did in the first game, the Troopers squandered opportunities. Mooreville stranded the bases loaded in the fourth and sixth innings.
‘Had out chances’
“We had our chances,” Berryman said. “We did everything to win. We just didn’t come through. We forgot how to play.”
Chad Armstrong’s three-run home run capped a five-run first inning for the Troopers that chased starting pitcher Carter in favor of Kitchens.
The Cougars rallied with two runs in the first, then grabbed the lead with a four-run second highlighted by Jared Wilson’s three-run homer.
Dale Constance/NEMS Journal