Petal wins season series with Oak Grove; Warriors claim No. 1 seedBy CAMAL PETRO,
HATTIESBURG – Once George County closed out Meridian earlier Tuesday night, the region was decided. In what some called a “rebuilding year,” the Oak Grove Warriors won their second consecutive region title and earned a first-round bye in the 6A playoffs.
The Petal Panthers, however, weren’t going to miss an opportunity to spoil Oak Grove’s celebratory night. In a back and forth affair, Petal outlasted Oak Grove 8-7 to take two-of-three games from its rival this season.
“It’s a tough place to come in and win, and we did it twice this year,” Petal coach Larry Watkins said. “I think it surprised a lot of people. They didn’t think we could do it, and I’m proud of these guys because they’ve hung in a battled this year.”
While Oak Grove, Petal and George County all ended the region schedule with 6-3 records, Oak Grove claimed the tiebreaker to be seeded first. George County will host a first-round playoff series as the No. 2 seed, and Petal will hit the road as the No. 3 seed.
“I told our guys, they’re co-champions,” Watkins said. “We had the same record. It was definitely for the seeding, but we were tied. All three teams had the same record and we beat Oak Grove twice and George County once. Our district is pretty strong.”
What made the win more special for Petal was it was without two of its top pitchers. Senior Hunter Dykes, who leads the team with 29 innings pitched, a 2.41 earn run average and a 3-0 record, has missed time due to a shoulder injury he suffered the last time these teams played, and freshman Garrett Barger will miss the remainder of the season after having surgery on his pitching arm this week. Barger was 3-1 with a 3.50 ERA before the injury.
With a depleted pitching staff, Watkins pieced the game together with three pitchers, but he turned to sophomore Matt Mercer to get things started. Mercer entered the contest with just 1.1 innings under his belt, but he pitched the first two innings before being lifted for senior Tyler Dobson.
“It’s going to be like that in our games coming up,” Watkins said of using a pitcher-by-committee method. “Right now, we don’t have the guy to go out there and go seven innings. So, we’ll probably work it like that.”
Dobson pitched the next three innings while allowing two runs – both earned – on five hits. Nate Oswalt closed the door in the final two innings, as he struck out four and held Oak Grove hitless.
“We’ve been facing adversity,” Watkins said. “We have a couple of pitchers injured, so I was pleased. We knew going in that we were going to have to piece it together with the pitching, and it worked out.”
Tuesday night was Dykes’ first time to see the field since the injury, and the designated hitter, he went 3-for-4 with an RBI and two runs scored.
“If we can play with this intensity, hit the ball and play defense, I think we can be tough against anybody,” Watkins said. “I’m just happy we’re playing good right now.”
For the Warriors, the loss was a reality check, but one of the season’s goals was accomplished with the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. With two sophomores leading the pitching staff, the entire season has been a learning experience. To win a region title with a young team shows the future is bright once again for the Oak Grove program.
“I’m happy,” McCardle said. “Obviously, I’m not happy about (Tuesday night), but I’ve been doing it long enough to know once you win the region, and this has happened to my best teams, we kind of play a little flat. Considering beating George County twice and winning the games we needed to by the runs we did against those guys, I’m pleased with where we are.”
The Warriors were coming off a 29-6 season in 2017, but they only had a few players returning to the starting lineup. Newcomers like sophomores DeeJay Booth, Turner Swistak and Luke Lyon have been key to this season’s success.
“It’s been tough,” McCardle said of the process this year compared to previous years. “It’s been a learning experience for these guys, and you just keep pushing, keep pushing.”
Oak Grove (13-7, 6-3 in Region 6-5A) is scheduled to play in the Lamar County Tournament this weekend, while Petal (12-6, 6-3) is set to host Taylorsville Thursday at 7 p.m.