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Hang a hat on Hattiesburg High

Jeff Dahn

Published: Thursday, February 15, 2018







2018 Southeast Region Preview2018 Perfect Game High School Preview Index

Elite class of 2018 prospect Joe Gray Jr. is a been there, done that kind of guy.

Throughout an accolade-laden Perfect Game career that began in the summer of 2015, just months before he started his sophomore year at Hattiesburg (Miss.) High School, the 6-foot-3, 195-pound, fleet-footed, right-handed power-hitting outfielder was given the opportunity to showcase his skills on big-league caliber fields stretching from San Diego to Jupiter, Fla.

Gray, now a senior at HHS, has performed on many of the biggest stages offered to top prep prospects, including the PG All-American Classic, the PG National Showcase and the PG WWBA World Championship.

He’s won two PG WWBA national championships – including the 2017 17u PG WWBA playing with Virginia-based Canes Baseball – and achieved top-prospect status all while performing in front of thousands of scouts, college recruiters and television cameras.

It’s an impressive resume, to be sure; all that national exposure and the attention that comes with it is often, as Carly Simon might sing, the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s all well and good, but Gray gets especially excited when he begins to talk about the experiences he’s enjoyed as a member of the Hattiesburg HS baseball program.

“Playing (travel ball) with the Canes, being able to be with a team like that for the last 2½ years of my life as both an underclassman and an upperclassman … it’s just a good feeling knowing that you’re playing with those top-tier guys,” he told PG over the telephone this week. “But at the end of the day, when you’re at home and in your own community, it’s a different feeling; it’s a different story.

“At your school you’re trying to leave a legacy, and it’s just more of a community thing,” he continued. “You have your family and friends supporting you every night that you go out on the field. Being able to play with my every-day friends, being able to play with the people I grew up with … is something rare.”

The Hattiesburg Tigers, playing in Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 5A, start their 2018 regular-season this weekend and will do so as the No. 8 team in the PG High School Preseason Top 50 national rankings; they are the No. 2-ranked team in the talent-rich PG HS Southeast Region (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee).

They’re coming off a 2017 season that ended in the MHSAA Class 5A semifinals with a 2-1, best-of-3 series loss to regional rival and eventual champion Pearl River Central. The Tigers finished 26-11, the second straight 26-win season under now 12th-year head coach Joe Hartfield.

Gray, an Ole Miss signee PG ranks as the No. 10 overall prospect in the national class of 2018, isn’t the only high-profile prospect returning from that team. Seniors Dexter Jordan Jr. (No. 160, Louisiana-Lafayette) and Kameron Wells (top-500, Miami-Dade College) are back to team with Gray in what would be an extremely impressive outfield if Hartfield finds a way to put all three out there at the same time.

Senior right-hander A.J. Stinson (No. 353, Alabama State) is back to headline the pitching staff after winning seven games and striking out 46 in 41 1/3 innings last spring. Wells (4-0, 1.16 ERA, 47 Ks, 36 1/3 IP) and Jordan (6-3, 3.08 ERA, 66 Ks, 59 IP) should also be among the starters; junior right-hander Landon Rascoe (top-500, uncommitted) is also highly regarded.

It’s a roster filled with experienced talent, and the players and coaching staff believe it is a team that compete for the school’s first state championship since 2006. Based on the lofty ranking, it’s obvious that PG prognosticators believe there’s a tiger in the Tigers’ tank.

Others do, as well, with Hattiesburg HS being invited to this year’s USA Baseball National High School Invitational in Cary, N.C., March 28-31. The prestigious event features 16 teams from 10 states, including four from Florida, three from California and two from Arizona. Mississippi joins Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, North Carolina and Virginia with one team each.

“We have to keep them level-headed and we’re going to have to keep their egos in check, and those are going to be challenges,” Hartfield told PG this week. “And then, we have to get them to play hard. They’ve got to get rid of some of this other stuff that’s going on in their lives and really focus on baseball. …

“The biggest thing that we’ve got to do as a staff right now is just get our guys to focus on what’s ahead as a team, and that’s to try to win a state championship.”

 

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ACCORDING TO ONLINE SOURCES, HATTIESBURG HIGH SCHOOL
has right around 1,100 students enrolled in grades 9 through 12, and it’s split almost 50-50 between the boys and the girls. Minorities make up 97 percent of the student body, and the varsity baseball team, with 23 rostered players, is 100 percent African-American.

“It’s not very often you see an all African-American (high school) baseball team; we’re proud of that,” Hartfield said. “Some of our kids are raw but they’re athletic, and some of our kids are really good baseball players; we’re fortunate right now to have some really good players.

“We’re just like any other school, and our talent (level) will go up and go down,” he continued. “Right now, we have the best talent in the 12 seasons that I’ve been at Hattiesburg, by far.”

Hartfield and his top assistants, Brent Barham and Eddie Easley, are starting their 12th season together at HHS, and thanks to a recent run of exceptional athletes, they’re re-establishing the program as one of the best in Mississippi.

The Tigers were the kings of the hill in the mid-1990s, winning MHSAA Class 5A state championships in 1994, ’97 and ’98; they wore another 5A crown in 2006. Hartfield, Barham and Easley arrived the following season and set a course that really didn’t start reaping rewards until the 2015 season when the current collection of seniors were freshmen.

That 2015 team reached the playoffs but lost in a class 6A regional semifinal to crosstown rival Oak Grove and finished with an 18-11 record. Hartfield was named the Hattiesburg American All-Area Coach of the Year at the end of the season after previously being honored with the newspaper’s award in 1999 and 2001 when he was coaching at nearby Lumberton High School.

Things really came together the following season when the Tigers not only made the playoffs but won the regional championship by sweeping all three of its opponents, 2-0, in the MHSAA’s best-of-3 playoff format.

That sent them into the 5A state final four, where they swept district rival Pearl River Central, 2-0, before losing to perennial state and national power Oxford, 2-0, in the championship series; Hartfield repeated as the American’s coach of the year.

“We’ve got a good run of talent coming through right now,” he said. “The coaching staff really hasn’t done anything differently – we work our tail off regardless of how much talent we have. You just have to do that because that’s what you’re in the profession of doing, is building as strong of a program as you can.”

Hattiesburg HS will play in MHSAA Class 5A Region 7 this year, with North Pike, Pearl River Central, Picayune and Stone. North Pike is new to the lineup this year, coming in after winning a 4A region championship in 2017.

There are dozens of solid programs with rich histories all around the Hattiesburg area, including Oak Grove, a 6A school located 7 miles to HHS’s west; the U. of Southern Mississippi sits between the two. The Oak Grove program has won 11 state titles in its history, including 6A crowns in 2012 and 2014.

Petal (Miss.) HS has won six state championships dating back to 1990; Sumrall (Miss.) HS has claimed five 3A state championships, including a run of four straight from 2008-11. Hartfield attended North Forest HS about 7½ mile north of HHS, which won four straight small school titles from ’83-’86.

“The baseball culture here is tremendous,” he said. “We’re a hotbed for baseball and we have been for many, many years.”

… … …


JOE GRAY JR. AND DEXTER JORDAN JR. HAVE BEEN VARSITY STARTERS
since they were freshmen -- Gray got a call-up as an eighth-grader -- and have been catalysts for success within the program for each of the last three seasons.

Gray said he was about 10 or 11 years old when he first met Coach Hartfield, who was running his Tigers’ team through a practice at the time. The youngster simply took it upon himself to walk over to an empty batting cage, where he started swinging a bat and knocking baseballs around. He was just in fourth or fifth grade, but Gray had unofficially become a Hattiesburg Tiger.

“I’ve always enjoyed playing baseball here – it’s an amazing program – because a lot of people will say that baseball is a boring sport, but we don’t make it that way,” he said. “You come to a game at Hattiesburg, you’re pretty much going to an SEC type of baseball environment right here. Our fans come and support us, and we make it very enjoyable to watch; we enjoy playing (the game) also.”

According to statistics published on the MaxPreps website, the Tigers tole 83 bases in their 37 games last spring, an average of more than two per game; Gray swiped 19 of them, Jordan seven. It’s almost like attending a ballgame and having a track meet breakout.

“As a coach, I have a tendency to play the game at a fast pace,” Hartfield said. “We try to teach our kids how to get on-and-off the field quickly, and how to put a lot of pressure on the opponent by running the bases, hitting a lot of ground balls and line-drives, and just really pressuring the other team.

“What we have found in the past is a lot of these teams will make fielding errors or throwing errors … and then we’re also able to steal some bags from time-to-time.”

Hartfield calls baseball a “crude” game, and by that he means it’s a difficult game. If a player can’t deal with the things that go wrong during the game or during a practice, that’s going to make it difficult for him to become an accomplished player. In that regard, the first thing the Hattiesburg coaching staff works on with its players is their mental approach.

Once the proper mindset is in place, the coaches can take the players’ athleticism and apply it to the game. Without even considering a player’s body type or the position that he plays, the coaches are then able to get as much out of them as the player is willing to allow.

“You’ve got to act right, you’ve got to carry yourself right; you’ve got to do the little things right,” Hartfield said. “As a coach, I can’t get anything out of you or enough out of you if you’re character isn’t high enough. You’ve got be willing to work.”

Having a young man like Gray around to serve as a team leader is a real plus, of course. Hartfield welcomes the attention Gray brings to the program, but there is just so much more beyond that.

“The biggest thing is, he’s not just a talented kid but he’s a talented kid that has a high character level,” Hartfield said. “He does the right things on and off the field – he does the right things in the classroom – he handles himself like a man and the other kids on the team look up to him; Dexter is the same way.”

These are well-rounded young men (Gray carries a 3.8 GPA, Jordan a 3.2). Hartfield firmly believes that if those guys weren’t talented athletically they could be successful as businessmen, coaches or in any field of their choosing.

The most gratifying thing for Hartfield and his assistants is watching the players use their program as a catalyst to move on to college or, certainly in Gray’s circumstance, the professional ranks. “We try to make sure that all of our guys that have worked hard enough and have gotten good enough to play at the college level, that they get that opportunity,” he said.

As a top prospect in this year’s MLB June Amateur Draft – PG ranks him No. 24 overall (college, juco, high school), meaning a first-round pick – Gray knows there will be hundreds of eyes on him this spring, watching his every move. Jordan, the No. 240 overall draft prospect, will be studied intently, as well.

Gray is also a smart guy with personality-plus and knows that if he takes care of business on and off the field, the draft will take care of itself. He won’t put any added pressure on himself because if he plays well and his teammates play well enough beside him to win a state championship, everyone will take notice. It’s all about enjoying the game while trusting himself and his teammates.

“A senior year for a (top prospect) player, there’s a lot that comes with it,” Gray said. “I really ready to get this senior year going and try to win the state championship here at Hattiesburg before I leave.”

“Obviously, for a kid in my position, the draft is going to be somewhere in your mind,” he concluded. “But at the end of the day it’s really about realizing your priorities and my priority this year is going to be to get a state championship ring on my finger.”


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