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By STAN CALDWELL
The Richton Rebels are looking to summon the echoes of past glory as they prepare for the high school baseball playoffs.
The Rebels are headed back to the postseason as the No. 2 seed in Region 8-1A and will open the Class 1A playoffs at home against Bay Springs in the first round.
Game 1 in the best-of-three series is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday, with Game 2 at Bay Springs on Monday, and if a third game is needed, it will be back at Richton on Tuesday.
“I really love this team,” said Richton head coach Josh Palmer.
“We’ve battled through so much adversity, with guys who have been hurt and had to battle back. We’ve moved some kids around from where they were playing at the first of the year. And I love our never-quit attitude.”
Palmer did not find out until late Tuesday night who his team would be matched up with in the opening round, as Bay Springs and Enterprise-Lincoln had to play to determine the second seed in Region 7-1A. Enterprise won.
“It really doesn’t matter who, except that we won’t know until late whether we start on Thursday or Friday,” said Palmer. “If it’s Bay Springs, we’ll have to change some things around, because their coach also coaches track, and they have a meet Saturday.
“We’re still going to play our game, no matter who we play. We’re going to try to throw strikes, play good defense and make hard contact. Generate some pressure on the bases.”
Any time Richton takes the field, it does so under the memory of the Golden Age of Rebel baseball, when the Rebels won Class 2A state championships in 2007, 2008 and 2010.
Those title-winning teams were built around the talents of JaCoby Jones, who went on to star in college at LSU, then reached the big leagues, spending the past five seasons with the Detroit Tigers. He’s currently under contract with the Kansas City Royals.
“Our alumni game, (Jones) usually comes down and talks to us,” said senior Avery Carter. “So that motivates us a little bit. There’s no reason why we couldn’t be one of those teams and put another championship on the sign.”
That legacy is part of the reason Palmer, 32, came to Richton in 2018 after three seasons as an assistant at Enterprise-Clarke. Originally from Waynesboro, he played for Wayne County in the early-2000s under Chris McCardle, now the coach at Oak Grove.
“We have high expectations every year,” said Palmer. “The community still remembers those kids on those teams. We want to get back to that. The last couple of years, we’ve started to rebuild that a little bit.”
Palmer’s first season, in 2019, was painful, as Richton went 5-24 overall. However, the Rebels were 6-5 and 1-0 in region in 2020 when play was shut down for Covid-19.
In 2021, Richton had a breakthrough of sorts, finishing 14-16 overall, but 5-3 in the region, and made it to the third round of the playoffs before being eliminated by Stringer. That experience has motivated the Rebels into 2022.
This season, Richton faced another challenging schedule, including games against Sumrall, Wayne County and other larger programs. The Rebels enter the playoffs at 11-13 overall (4-2 in region).
“We had an early matchup against Sumrall; that was definitely a test,” said Carter. “We kept up with them; we just ran out of pitching. We also got to see a little bit of Taylorsville. Of course, they’re 1A too, and they’re a good team, but I like our chances against them.”
The Rebels weathered a four-game skid earlier in April by winning a pair this past weekend over Wayne Academy and Quitman.
“We’ve had some games where we were able to win late,” said Palmer “We’re not always the most talented team, and we play up (in class) a lot. We’re excited about the opportunity coming up in the playoffs.”
Indeed, Richton’s players say they’re just, “an average team,” but while the Rebels don’t have eye-popping stats, they don’t present many weaknesses either, especially against competition their own size.
The Rebels have a team batting average of .382, a team earned-run average of 4.35 and only 45 errors for a fielding percentage of .908.
“I think we’re a pretty solid team for a 1A school,” said senior Brannon Riley. “We’ve got a real good defense this year. Offensively, we could be better; we’ve still got some work to do there. But I think we can go pretty deep in the playoffs.”
Riley and sophomore Tyler Pierce anchor Richton’s pitching staff. Both right-handers, both have an ERA of 3.24 in 45 1/3 innings. Riley is the strikeout leader with 62, while Pierce has 49. As a team, the Rebels have a better than 2-1 strikeout to walk ratio.
“I throw a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball, curveball, slider, change-up,” said Riley. “I feel like I’m just average, but I just do the best I can.”
The Rebels don’t have a lot of power, with only four home runs this season, but they are known to scrap at the plate. Senior Devin Miller is Richton’s leading hitter, with a .513 average an impressive on-base plus slugging percentate (OPS) of 1.149.
“Devin Miller is the catalyst for us,” said Palmer. “When he’s going well, then we’re going well. Then we’ve got Brannon Riley going for the first game (of the playoffs). He’s been our ace since he was a freshman.”
Senior Sam Henderson is the team’s top run-producer, with 19 RBIs. Riley and Miller each have 18 RBIs.
“I came in here as a sophomore and really didn’t have a lot of baseball experience,” said Henderson, who carries a .359 batting average and is responsible for two of the team’s four homers.
“Coach Palmer helped me a lot with my hitting; it’s come a log way in the three years I’ve been here.”
Although the seniors have been the core of the team, Richton has some talented underclassmen in key roles. In addition to Pierce, the Rebels feature sophomores Landon Smith and Thomas Walley, both of whom are batting over .400.
“We actually expected that a couple of years ago,” said Palmer. “We moved up six of those kids when they were eighth graders to practice with the high school. So this is really their third year in the program. They’re almost like juniors with their experience.
“Definitely the future looks bright.”
The Rebels also run the bases extremely well, with 168 stolen bases in 174 attempts. Smith leads the team with 25. Miller has 21.
“We’ve got a pretty good defense; we don’t beat ourselves in the field,” said Smith. “Offensively, we find gaps, we steal bases. We like to put other teams in pressure situations.”
The Rebels are in a favorable part of the 1A bracket. If Richton gets past the first round, it would either face Simmons or Noxapater in the second round, and the Rebels would not face either of the two favorites in 1A South, Resurrection and Taylorsville, until the South State finals.
“It doesn’t matter who we play,” said Palmer. “We’re going to go wherever they tell us to go and play whoever they tell us to play.”
As they prepare for the postseason, the Rebels are taking an optimistic approach.
“I feel like we have a good chance of beating either Bay Springs or Enterprise,” said Carter. “I think we’re one of the best teams in 1A, and I think we’re going to make a deep run. We haven’t quite put it together, but we’re getting hot at the right time.”
Other South State
1A Playoff Matchups
Ethel vs. South Delta
Enterprise-Lincoln vs. Lumberton
Simmons vs. Noxapater
Taylorsville vs. Salem
Sebastopol vs. West Bolivar
Resurrection vs. Mount Olive
McEvans vs. French Camp