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Michael Johnson, Jr. does it all for South Panola in 6-5 playoff win over Starkville in extra innings

Johnson pitched 8.2 innings, racked up three hits and saved the game with his defensive heroics
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STARKVILLE — South Panola is going to have sophomore Michael Johnson, Jr. for two more seasons, and that should frighten everyone in 6A North.

Johnson did a little bit of everything for the Tigers Saturday, pitching nearly nine innings, going 3-for-6 at the plate with an RBI and providing a game-saving assist from the outfield wall in extra innings to help South Panola rally past Starkville 6-5.

Starkville won game one 6-2 Friday, so Saturday’s win evened the series and set up a huge rubber match. First pitch in that game is set for 7 p.m. Monday night in Batesville.

MORE: Photo gallery from Saturday's game

"I told our guys to keep scratching and clawing,” South Panola coach Hunter Mize said. “Don't change anything just keep being who you are and we can win this game. It didn't start the way we wanted it to, but our guys showed a lot of heart tonight.”

Starkville was in control early. Karsten Upchurch held the Tigers to one run in the first, and the Yellow Jackets got five consecutive hits to start the bottom of the inning — highlighted by Kieran Coleman’s two-RBI single — and put up four runs.

The Jackets carried that 4-1 lead into the third inning, when South Panola started to bite back.

Mari Boyd and Michael Johnson, Jr. started off the inning with back-to-back singles, and Brayden Martin brought home two runs with an RBI single to center to trim Starkville’s lead to 4-3.

Upchurch had to come out of the game in the top of the fourth after 3.1 innings of work with an apparent arm injury. Starkville coach Luke Adkins called on sophomore Otto Hyche to relieve him, and Hyche didn’t disappoint. He struck out Baylor Scammon with a nasty curveball and got out of the inning with a fly ball.

South Panola went back to work in the top of the fifth. Mari Boyd led it off with a triple and scored on Michael Johnson’s RBI single.

Hyche wasn’t done. He came back out for the fifth and retired 9 of the next 11 batters he faced to force extra innings.

South Panola nearly scored the go-ahead run in the top of the seventh after Johnson singled to lead things off. Junior Aidan Williams plastered a ball to center field, but Jacket outfielder Cade Tate made a miraculous catch that left the crowd in awe.

In the ninth inning, it was the Tiger’s turn for some defensive heroics. Starkville unior Brennon Wright drew a one-out walk and was looking to score when Ethan Pulliam hit a line drive off the wall in left field. But Johnson fielded it cleanly and fired the ball home on a frozen rope to hose him at home plate.

“I just had to react fast,” Johnson said. “I wanted to make a good throw, but I’m just glad my catcher was able to make the catch and put the tag down.”

His efforts weren’t wasted. Scammon led off the top of the 11th with a single to center, and Eli Raines followed with a double to score him all the way from first. Raines went from second to third on Eli Russell’s sac bunt and scored on an RBI groundout off the bat of freshman Taylor Anderson.

"Eli, you been at bat maybe seven times this year and you stepped up and made a play,” Mize said to Raines in his post-game speech. “That's being a player right there.”

That extra run ended up being important, because the Tigers wound up needing it.

The Jackets got one run in the bottom of the 11th on Chipper Hornburger’s RBI groundout, and had the tying run at third base with one out. But Panola reliever Aidan Williams got Koby Livingston swinging and Brennon Wright grounded out to third to end the threat.

Hyche was heroic in defeat for Starkville. He ended up throwing 116 pitches in 7.2 innings of work in relief with nine strikeouts and just one walk. 

Johnson went 8.2 innings for South Panola, with eight strikeouts and three walks. Williams got the win, holding Starkville to the one run on two hits with four strikeouts in the final 2.1 innings.