The John Milledge Academy baseball team is headed back to Mercer University to compete for its second state championship in three seasons.
The Trojans earned their title series berth by defeating Westfield in a best-of-three series played under peculiar circumstances. Now second-year head coach Andy Bonifay and his team have just a couple of days to prepare for the GISA AAA state championship series that will be played at Mercer against Dominion Christian this Friday and Saturday
“Amazing,” Bonifay said on how it feels to reach the state finals. “We knew our season would get off to a slow start, we just didn’t know how long that process was going to take. I asked the guys to just work hard and see where we are at the end. That’s something they stayed true to, so this is a lot of hard work paying off. I hope they can realize all that came to fruition.”
The semifinal series could have been wrapped up all on Friday and was supposed to have been completed Saturday at the latest, but Mother Nature had other plans. Game 1 saw the two teams finish seven innings tied 3-3, so on to extras they went. JMA junior lefty pitcher Jackson Carter held the Hornets in check until his teammates’ bats backed him up in the 10th. It was then that postseason hitting machine Dalton Prestridge knocked in a pair of runs to put the Trojans up 5-3 before sophomore DH Carson Dyer added an extra for insurance. The Trojans came out victorious 6-3 in the series opener and reloaded for game two.
Early on in the second game it looked like the fans watching at Westfield and streaming the game online would be in for another extra-inning affair, but the host Hornets put an end to that thinking in the top of the fourth. With the bases loaded, Westfield’s Michael Fitzpatrick walloped a grand slam, helping his team to a six-run inning that put them up 7-2. The Hornets would run away with the second ballgame, eventually winning 15-3 in six innings, so on to a deciding game three the series went.
The winner-take-all contest was scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday afternoon at Westfield in Perry. The two teams battled into the bottom of the third inning with the Hornets having earned a 3-2 lead. It was at that point that lightning in the area forced both teams off the field. Officials and coaches played the waiting game for a while before it was ultimately decided that they would pick up right where the game left off Monday after school.
“We had to look at it as a positive that we were getting a couple more days of rest,” Bonifay said. “The weather can play mind tricks with you trying to figure out when you’re going to be able to play. Like on Saturday we didn’t know if we were going to wait it out and play late at night, but I think we could all exhale a little bit when we decided to come back on Monday.”
Carter started game three Saturday after having pitched multiple innings the night before. In the bottom of the second Bonifay opted to give the ball to senior Brandon Bellflower, who entering the semifinal series had pitched only six innings this season. The lefty threw one inning Saturday before the game was postponed and remained on the mound when play resumed Monday.
“He felt good and he wanted the ball, so there was no question that we were going to give it to him,” Bonifay said. “I think he set the tone with the very first batter and sat them down 1-2-3 once the game restarted.”
Westfield carried the 3-2 lead into fifth and added to it thanks to a past ball, putting the Trojans down two with just two innings to play.
“It kinda hurt, but at the same time, we just had to get over it. We were swinging the bat well those first two at-bats,” said Bonifay. “We were hitting the ball hard, but they were just resulting in outs. That’s when you have to stay upbeat. It all just clicked.”
The John Milledge bats exploded for five runs in the sixth. Their contact earlier in the ballgame kept finding Westfield leather, but once the penultimate inning came their batted balls were finding every hole on the field. The Hornets would answer with just a single run in their turn in the sixth and were held scoreless in the seventh, allowing the Trojans to leave Perry with the 7-5 win and series victory.
“They all knew what was at stake,” Bonifay said of his players. “We couldn’t leave a lot of guys on the table. We believed in our pitching, but we just didn’t know what was going to happen. Fortunately, we had a big inning that allowed us to do that.”
Bellflower threw the final six innings of game three, matching the number of innings he had pitched all season and striking out seven in the process. Twins Jacob and Jared Prestwood each provided a pair of RBIs to help their team to the series-clinching win as well.
Times have been set for this weekend’s GISA AAA championship series against Dominion Christian. Mercer University’s OrthoGeorgia Park will play host to the best-of-three series with game one set to take place Friday at 1:30 p.m. Game 2 is set for Saturday at 5 p.m., and game three will follow if necessary. The Trojans will be seeking their second baseball state championship in three seasons after having won the title in 2017.