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Huge game for Dawgs this Thursday a with playoff appearance up for grabs
By STAN CALDWELL
Ryan Jackson is the son of a coach and a small-town guy with big-time ambitions for his Perry Central Bulldogs baseball team.
He may not get to the promised land this year, but Jackson is putting down a foundation, brick-by-brick, for success at Perry Central.
“We show up, throw strikes, compete, put the baseball in play, and have fun,” said Jackson. “It’s just baseball; you play hard, and the outcome is what it is.”
It hasn’t been easy.
Jackson comes by his coaching chops naturally. His father, Pete Jackson, was a successful softball coach in his hometown of Poplarville who built a perennial championship contender at Poplarville High.
The elder Jackson was struck down by a heart attack in August 2001 at the age of 45. Ryan Jackson was just 17 at the time, but he knew even then he’d follow in his dad’s footsteps.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Jackson said. “I wasn’t athletically gifted enough coming out of high school to move on. But I still enjoyed the game; still love the game.”
Jackson graduated from Mississippi State then returned to Poplarville, where he was first head softball coach for the Lady Hornets, then he moved to the baseball program and spent 10 seasons as an assistant.
“I decided I wanted to see if I could make it as a head coach,” said Jackson. “I took the job here and my first year was the Covid year. I had a lot to learn anyway and then you throw Covid in; even experienced coaches didn’t know exactly what to do. Nobody knew what to do.”
When quarantine restrictions eased up in the summer and fall of 2020, Jackson was able to get his kids together on a come-if-you-can basis for informal workouts and weightlifting.
“It kind of leveled the playing field a little bit,” said Jackson. “Creative minds were able to work to see how we could get the team better, with social distancing and everything that went with all that.”
“I feel like our boys have done really well coming out of Covid. They took it seriously, took the time off seriously. I’m sure they spent a lot of time down at the river, messing around, but they also took the time to learn the game and better themselves.”
Jackson’s players took the lessons to heart, finding structure in those workouts during a chaotic period.
“We’ve had some ups and downs,” said senior Paul James. “We had a good year my junior year, when we came back (post-Covid). We just keep developing, learning each day, each game, learning from our mistakes and try to do better.”
“We didn’t have that many games (in 2020), so we had to take what we’d learned to practice. That was one good thing about it; we were able to practice more, and it was a way to get together.”
Indeed, the Bulldogs were 11-13 last season, but finished 7-1 and in second place in their region. Their season ended with a series loss to Puckett.
“The more we played and practiced together, the more we improved,” said senior Brett Robnett. “We learned how to play hard and have fun.”
“Playoffs are always exciting, but it’s always like the first game (of the season), you start off with a new record every time. Playing Puckett in the first round helped us get ready for this year.”
Despite having just three seniors on the squad, and having moved up to Class 3A, Jackson scheduled big to get them ready for a tough schedule in Region 8-3A. Among the teams Perry Central has played this season are No. 1-ranked Sumrall, Poplarville, Richland, Wayne County and Columbia.
“We learned how to compete,” said sophomore infielder Kaden Bolton. “We learned how to stay mentally focused and not give up.”
The Bulldogs took their lumps early in the season, but they competed, and after a 1-4 start, PCHS has worked its way to a 9-12 overall record after winning five of the last seven games, including a dramatic 7-6 victory over St. Patrick last Thursday at Biloxi.
“I think our record is worse this year, but we’re a better team,” said Jackson. “We went from playing teams that were bottom of the tier 2A to teams that are among the best in the state.”
“We had to realize early in the season that we can play with the good teams in the state. These kids believe they can hang with these teams.”
Currently, the Bulldogs are in a fight for a playoff spot at 3-5 in Region 8-3A play. PCHS was tied with St. Patrick for fourth in the region coming into the final week of the region schedule, but the Bulldogs need some help if they are to advance.
Perry Central hosted Seminary on Tuesday and dropped a 4-9 decision. They play game two of the series on Thursday at Seminary, while St. Pat has games against league-leading St. Stanislaus.
“We just have to play hard and avoid mental mistakes,” said Robnett. “And if you make a mistake, forget about it and move on to the next play. Hopefully, we can get back to the playoffs, but if not, we know we gave it everything we had.”
The Fighting Irish have a tiebreaker advantage thanks to run-differential in the two games last week. St. Patrick took the game Tuesday 11-3, while PCHS won the second game, as freshman right-hander Austin Jones struck out four straight batters to nail down the victory.
“I just went out there, gave it my all and hoped for the best,” said Jones. “This season I’ve learned how to play hard. I’m looking forward to the next couple of years.”
To reach the postseason, the Bulldogs must win one more game this week than St. Pat, which puts Jackson in a position he’s never been in before. Both teams lost their series openers this week, meaning PCHS needs to beat Seminary in game two and hope the Rockachaws finish off the sweep of St. Patrick.
“First time in my life I ever – ever – rooted for St. Stanislaus,” Jackson said.
Jackson is fortunate to have solid help at Perry Central with assistant coaches Corey Bass and Chandler Ray.
Bass is a former Petal standout who starred at Pearl River Community College. He was drafted by the Houston Astros and spent several seasons in their farm system.
“What he has brought to our pitching staff is the depth of knowledge of what it takes to succeed at a high level,” said Jackson. “His pitch-calling in a game is phenomenal. I want our catchers to soak up every second of that and ask as many questions as they can.”
Ray, the Dawgs hitting coach, played for Jackson with the Hornets, then spent two seasons at PRCC. He too has coaching in his genes, as his dad was a longtime coach at Poplarville before moving into administration.
“Our relationship goes way back,” said Jackson. “He played for me, plus I’m married to his cousin. His degree is in kinesiology, so the strength concept he brings is part of our game planning.”
“He can look at a pitcher or a hitter and say, ‘you’re doing this, you’re collapsing here.’ He not only sees it but is able to diagnose it and put in a plan in the weight room to get them stronger in those areas.”
Perry Central will miss the services of its three seniors as the program grows. James, an athletic 6-footer who mostly plays in the outfield, has been a leader on the team for the past three seasons and is headed to PRCC to play football.
Robnett, a left-handed pitcher who also plays first base, has been the team’s ace on the mound the past two seasons, but the Bulldogs have been without the versatile Ty Sumrall, who has missed most of the season after breaking his hand in preseason.
“We just got him back in the lineup last week,” said Jackson. “I think there’s 5-6 more wins on our record if he’s with us all season.”
Regardless of how the Bulldogs fare down the stretch, Jackson believes the foundation is laid for big things in the coming seasons. He expects pitching to be a big part of any future success.
“We’ve got Kaden and Austin, two young kids who are going to hold it down for us, and I think Connor Sullivan will also help us,” said Jackson. “(Junior catcher) Bradley (McSwain) will be back, and I expect him to have a monster season next year if he continues to work hard.”
“Caden Talley will be our returning shortstop, but if you talk to opposing coaches, they’ll say he’s our No. 1 guy on the mound. His stuff is nasty. We can’t wait to get him in the offseason (to get him ready for next year).”