By NEMCC Media Relations
BOONEVILLE, Miss. – Northeast Mississippi Community College’s baseball program has had to wait almost two decades to reach this point.
A couple more days did not matter.
Northeast (30-16) swept the final two games against Mississippi Gulf Coast 9-4, 5-4 in the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) State Baseball Playoffs best-of-three opening round series on Monday, May 6 at Harold T. White Field to advance to the state tournament at Pearl River Community College in Poplarville.
Northeast and Mississippi Gulf Coast were originally set to start before the weekend but inclement weather forced the Tigers and Bulldogs to move their opening game to Saturday, May 4 and then another round of weather postponed the series even further.
Northeast had also waited since the 1991-92 season to win its first North Division championship and hosted a playoff series for the first time since 2009.
However, the Tigers were patient in their efforts against the Bulldogs.
Northeast used a pair of big first innings in both games on Monday to capture the momentum and never looked back.
Kent Farris’ Tigers tallied four runs in the opening frame of game two and broke out for seven runs in their first three at bats and rode the arms of Booneville’s Kyle Stephenson, Hopkinsville, Kentucky’s Josh Drake and Falkner’s Will Robertson to force the ‘if necessary’ third game.
Ripley’s Ben Hellums and North Pontotoc’s Kyle Robbins kept the Bulldog offense in check in the rubber game of the series as the Tigers rallied for three runs in the opening frame and added runs in the fifth and sixth innings.
After being limited to just three hits on Saturday, Northeast’s offense found its rhythm early in game two.
Kossuth’s Heath Wood started off the game with a single and after a Robertson double to left, Ingomar’s Tanner McCollum tied the game at 1-1 with a grounder to second that chased Wood home.
Northeast continued to put pressure on the Mississippi Gulf Coast pitching staff as Milton, Georgia’s Chris Aichinger and Alcorn Central’s Jake Beck drew back-to-back walks to load the bases with two away.
New Albany’s Easton Hall gave the Tigers a lead the home team would never relinquish when the Northeast freshman was hit by a pitch on a 2-2 count and brought in Robertson.
Team captain Ethan Estes (Biggersville) pushed the Tigers to a three-run cushion one pitch later when the Northeast sophomore laced a two-out, two-RBI double into left field that brought home Aichinger and courtesy runner Tre Welch.
Northeast’s patience paid off in the second as the Tigers increased their lead.
Southaven’s Justin Neal drew a one-out walk to begin the progression and Robertson and McCollum followed with back-to-back free passes to load the bases for Aichinger.
Aichinger did not disappoint and on the eighth pitch of the at bat, the Northeast sophomore dropped a single into centerfield that brought home Neal and Robertson and gave the host a 6-1 advantage.
Northeast added an insurance run in the third to make it 7-1 when Neal singled to right to bring home Estes who had reached earlier in the frame.
Mississippi Gulf Coast made its stand in the seventh against the Tigers as the Bulldog offense was able to scratch away three runs and cut the game to 7-4 before Drake was able to get out of the jam with a Chris Burdette strikeout.
Northeast added two runs in the eighth – once again with patience at the plate.
Wood and Robertson both drew walks and Aichinger came through with the timely hit for the Tigers driving home Wood and courtesy runner Chance Cooley.
While Northeast was being patient at the plate, Robertson was making sure that the Tigers lived to play in the third game by shutting down the Bulldogs in the eighth and ninth innings for his first save of the year.
In the nightcap, Northeast lived up to the old adage of, “offense wins games, defense wins championships.”
Northeast had just enough offense to win but the Tiger defense stepped up with stellar plays in thwarting multiple Bulldog threats.
Northeast jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first as McCollum laced a single into right to give the Tigers a 1-0 lead and New Albany’s Riley Alef was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded just two batters later for a two-run Tiger lead.
Hall’s grounder to short was mishandled and allowed the Tigers to take a 3-0 lead when McCollum scampered home.
After taking the 3-0 lead, Northeast’s defense showcased its skill.
McCollum came away with an over-the-shoulder basket catch for an out in the second and Robertson sealed the frame as the Falkner native closed the distance on a short fly ball in right center and laid out for the inning-ending diving catch.
However, Northeast’s defense came to life in the fifth as the Bulldogs tied the game at 3-all.
After a Ryne Long bases-loaded single to center scored Jarred Gates, Neal came up with a strike to the plate that threw out Tyler Quave and prevented the Bulldogs from taking the lead.
While Northeast’s defense was putting on a show for the crowd, the Tiger offense was doing what it needed to do to secure their berth in the MACJC State Tournament.
Estes was hit by a pitch with two out in the bottom of the fifth to break the 3-3 tie and give the Tigers some breathing room when Robertson scored to make it 4-3.
Robertson went back on the defensive in the sixth when the Falkner native made his second diving catch in right field as the Northeast sophomore thwarted a Kyle Clement hit.
Northeast pushed its lead to 5-3 in the sixth as the Tigers opened up a two-run advantage when Wood jetted home from third on a wild pitch while McCollum was at bat with two down in the frame.
Wood’s run proved to be the game winner as the Bulldogs pulled to within 5-4 in the seventh when Michael Gilbert tagged on a Blake Lawson fly ball to Robertson in foul territory in right.
However, Robbins stopped the threat cold when the North Pontotoc native induced a Long grounder to second to end the inning.
After seeing the Bulldogs pull to within one, Robbins and the Northeast defense sealed the deal for the Tigers.
Robbins struck out two in the eighth while Alef gave up the body slamming back first into the brick backstop to end the inning on a foul ball off the Clement’s bat.
Northeast kept up the defensive pressure as Robbins got Taylor Hardy to fly out to third in the night and McCollum turned a 3-6-3 double play when the Ingomar native back-handed a Gates grounder, stepped on first and then threw to second to catch Gilbert sliding in to end the game.