By Rocky Higginbotham
Winston County Journal
A few trips to Trustmark Park in Pearl for championship action have kept expectations high for the Nanih Waiya baseball program in recent years.
That certainly won’t change this season.
A year after a disappointing finish in the postseason against Ethel, Nanih Waiya heads into the 2017 campaign with tons of depth and experience as the Warriors hope to make plenty of noise again.
Last year, Nanih Waiya finished 21-8, bowing out to eventual state runner-up Ethel in a best-of-3, Class 1A South State championship series.
Head coach Tyler Rogers said that tough series loss left somewhat of a bitter taste in the mouths of the Warriors.
“There were some little things we didn’t take seriously last year and some of those may have cost us in that playoff loss,” Rogers said. “We came out on the right foot this year and I think we’ve had better focus at practice.
“We’ve talked a lot about being accountable with what you’re doing. Coaching, watching, listening, getting better.”
The Warriors will open their 2017 campaign Saturday when they take on both Philadelphia and Newton at Noxapater.
Next week, Nanih Waiya goes to Lake on Tuesday (Feb. 28) and to French Camp on Friday (March 3) before battling East Webster and Choctaw County both in Ackerman on Saturday (March 4).
The Warriors lost five seniors from last year’s team, including two offensive stalwarts and one pitcher.
Wyatt Ball is gone after an incredible season in which he hit .588 with a team-high 40 base hits, 10 doubles and 31 RBIs. Also gone is Isaiah Eiland, who batted .406 with seven home runs and 31 RBIs.
Garrett Miles (.286, 27 runs) and Taylor Robinson also graduated, with Miles sporting a 1-0 mark and a 1.62 earned-run average on the mound in 17.1 innings.
But four other Warrior hurlers who saw significant action in 2016 are back, led by the senior duo of Ben Cumberland and Brady Jones.
Cumberland was 7-0 with a 1.24 ERA, four complete games and team-highs of 45.1 innings and 41 strikeouts. Jones, meanwhile, missed part of the year with a broken thumb but finished 4-0 with a 2.96 ERA, three complete games and 36 strikeouts in 26 innings.
Juniors Bryce Stanton (3-1, 1.94 ERA) and Roper Ball (3 CG, 24K) are also back and Rogers said sophomore Jake Kight and freshman Tylan Glass could also see action on the mound.
Offensively, Ball and Eiland will be tough to replace, and sophomore Tanner Luke (.407, 2 HR, 22 RBIs) may also miss the season after suffering a severe knee injury during football.
But there’s plenty of firepower coming back, as evidenced by Nanih Waiya’s 22 runs in eight innings of jamboree action last Saturday against Louisville.
“That was without two starters in the lineup,” Rogers said. “Of course, Louisville had some guys missing because of basketball, too. But I was real pleased with the way we hit the ball and we’ve had some good practices.”
Rogers said he is pleased with his team’s depth and a number of spots are still up for grabs. Jones and junior Charner Estes could see time at first base, while second base may be sophomore Coley Taylor or senior Austin Richardson.
Cumberland and Ball will likely play short, while third may be Kight or Richardson. Junior Dalton Luke will catch along with sophomore Cody Clark.
In the outfield, Stanton will be in center with freshman Shia Moore and Clark in left; and Richardson, Estes or junior Chris Smith in right.
Stanton batted .391 with two homers and 15 RBIs last year, while Cumberland hit .348 with 24 runs scored.
Ball hit .330 with 31 runs scored and Dalton Luke hit .282 with 20 runs as a sophomore.
Jones was 5-for-13 in limited offensive action, while Moore was 7-for-11 with three triples as an eighth-grader.
Nanih Waiya will compete in district play with Noxapater, West Lowndes and McAdams.
“Noxapater went to about the third round of the playoffs last year so I look for them to be tough and West Lowndes will probably be a pretty good ball team too.”