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High School | General | 3/7/2019

DeSoto, Showdown back in step

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Blaze Jordan (Perfect Game)

HOOVER, Ala. – The Jaguars from DeSoto Central High School in Southaven, Miss., arrived here at the beautiful Hoover Met Complex about mid-afternoon on Thursday, ready to make their first appearance at the Perfect Game High School Showdown for the first time since the 2015 season.

The PGHS Showdown is being played in this Birmingham suburb for the first time in its seven year history after previous appearances in Fort Myers, Fla., and Emerson, Ga., and the setting made everything seemed fresh and new on Thursday.

And the 32 teams PG invited to participate promise to make it a memorable affair. Six of them sit in the top 43 in the country in the PG High School Preseason National Top 50 Rankings, including No. 2 IMG Academy (Fla.) and No. 5 Blessed Trinity Catholic HS (Ga.).

“Just getting to play against high caliber programs that are here, is super exciting; they’re excited about the challenge,” seventh-year DeSoto Central head coach Mark Monaghan told PG on Thursday. “This park is beautiful and it was exciting to hear about the change (of venue), and as soon as we knew we were going to be participating in the event, everybody marked it on their calendar.”

The Jaguars are not out of place here; not by a longshot. They jumped to a 6-0 start to this season before arriving at the Showdown and that comes after a 29-9 Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A state championship season in 2018; they also won a 6A state championship in 2015. The Jags started the season ranked No. 9 in PG’s Preseason National Top 50.

“Anytime you have a lot of returning players that have kind of been through the grind of an entire season and being able to win the last game is big going into the next year,” Monaghan said. “In order for us to do that again we’ve got to play against great competition … and you come to a tournament like this you’re going to be challenged for sure.”

The first thing Monaghan and his assistant coaches addressed with the players when they were first brought together in the preseason was that last year was last year and encouraged them to take on the mentality of “So what, now what?” The approach they’re taking is that this is a new team and a new year and any success that comes their way in 2019 is going to have to be earned.

The Jags’ official 26-man roster features 13 seniors, 10 juniors, two sophomores and one freshman, so it is definitely a veteran group. Monaghan also said this is one of the closer-knit groups he’s had during his tenure at DeSoto Central, with the upperclassmen more than willing to work in harmony with the younger guys.

The seniors class (2019 grads) is led by a couple of Mississippi State recruits in shortstop Kamren James (nationally ranked No. 199) and outfielder Hunter French (top-500); top-500 Terris Meeks (Itawamba CC) and national “high-follows” Will Logsdon (Northwest Mississippi CC) and Connar Gardner (Itawamba CC) are a couple of other key 2019s.

“It really shows you what you’re made of because you’re facing the best in the country,” James told PG when asked his thoughts on being at the PGHS Showdown. “To be the best you’ve got to beat the best so we look forward to these kind of tournaments.”

This DeSoto Central junior class is paced by right-hander Cade Smith, another Mississippi State commit ranked No. 149 in the class of 2020 and outfielder Kyle Booker, a Tennessee commit ranked No. 339. Both of those guys know what it feels like to be part of a state championship and know just how difficult it is to capture that hill.

“We’re going to try to prove ourselves again,” Booker told PG Thursday. “We’re going for another one.”

This piece should probably be held up as a classic example of burying the lede, but the real star-power on this team wears uniform No. 7 and is one of the two sophomores on the Jaguars’ roster. First baseman Blaze Jordan is a 6-foot-1, 215-pound slugger who has been holding the No. 1 position in PG’s class of 2021 national prospect rankings for more than a year.

Jordan is another Mississippi State commit who has made a name for himself performing at prominent PG showcase events and while playing for the Memphis-based Dulin Dodgers during the summer months. He wears any uniform he puts on quite well but looks especially good in DeSoto Central blue and gold.

“It’s really special to play for your city and everything,” Jordan told PG. “It’s really cool when you play at home and all the students come out and all the fans come out from your city; it’s just really cool.”

Monaghan just likes the way these guys of all ages are able to mesh together so well: “In any sport team chemistry is big and without a doubt – we’ve never doubted it for a second – this team has great chemistry,” he said. “They’re a fun group to coach and they love to compete; they’re not afraid to lose. It’s just a matter of taking it one day at a time and they do it.”

The head coach worked to establish a culture of winning in his seven years heading the program, and what Monaghan likes best about each new team that comes in is that they understand they need to continue to work to maintain that culture; stability won’t be there from year-to-year just because it has been there in the past.

When the team first gets together in the fall they know there’s a certain process that needs to be adhered to and the players commit to that process. It doesn’t just happen on the field, either, but in the weight room and the classroom, as well.

“All those types of things are what plays into our success come season,” Monaghan said. “We always talk about our alumni and everything that they’ve done and all the sacrifices that they’ve made; we’ll never, forget that. The guys that are here now, they want to leave that legacy, as well. We’ve never really expected to win but we’ve expected to work hard every single day and then let the chips fall.”

Letting the chips fall where they may has served the Jaguars well. These players are confident and more than capable, and it’s not really necessary to spend a lot of time discussing lofty goals or high expectations.

“Coming into this year we felt like we were just a good or better than last year,” James said. “We were just ready to get the season started and go out and play. …We don’t really have to talk about the state championship a lot because that’s the common goal in the group; we obviously know that’s what we’re trying to do.

“Most of the time we just talk about being a family and just staying together and playing together. Everything we do, we don’t do it by ourselves and that’s mainly what we talk about.”

Jordan did feel like the team had some wind in its sail coming into the 2019 season from winning the 2018 state championship but also knows that won’t last long; it’s a new season and the team is starting over like all championship teams must do.

“We definitely have the same goals but … anything can happen,” he said. “We’ve just got to make sure we do everything we need to do to make that happen again.”

DeSoto Central made its first appearance at the PGHS Showdown in 2014, losing in the championship game to Sarasota (Fla.) HS. The Jags returned in 2015 and won only one of its four games, and then went over to Cary, N.C., to participate in the USA Baseball National High School Invitational, and finished 1-3 there, as well.

Those experiences might be looked upon as disappointing, at first glance, but in fact they were not. That 2015 Jaguars team learned a lot from playing premier competition at the two out-of-state events and went home and won a Mississippi state championship.

“As a coach, I want to play against the best,” Monaghan said. “We’re not trying to win a certain number of games we just want to win the last game and put ourselves in that position. If we’re going to do that, then we’ve got to challenge ourselves.”

Added Jordan: “With all the good competition that’s here it’s going to be a challenge for us, but as long as we play our game we should be fine. … Being out here (with other top players) it makes you want to work hard and keep up with everyone else. All of our teammates just bring out the best in each other, push each other to work hard and just play to the best of our ability.”

Booker echoed his teammates when talking about how much they were looking forward to being at the PG High School Showdown this weekend. Top talents and top teams always enjoy comparing themselves to other top talents and top teams, constantly testing themselves against the best that’s out there.

DeSoto Central did stub its toe out of the gate, dropping a 3-2 decision to Alabama’s Cullman HS late Thursday afternoon. But, as Monaghan was quick to point out, the Jaguars aren’t afraid of losing and there’s another aspect of this experience that can’t – and shouldn’t – be overlooked.

“This is all about going out and having fun, and I don’t think these guys struggle doing that at all,” Monaghan said. “If weren’t playing they’d want to be practicing. It’s that kind of special group to where they love being around each other and they love the game, and they’re super excited about the challenge.”

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