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Unsung heroes have Oxford baseball back in the state championship series

Last year, it was nearly a forgone conclusion that Oxford would find their way back to Trustmark Park and their second consecutive MHSAA Class 5A state championship. They had Jason Barber and Houston Roth on the mound. They had Grae Kessinger and Thomas Dillard at the plate and making plays on defense. Four Division I players, who all ended up across town at Ole Miss and contributing this spring.

The road to a third consecutive state championship was going to be much tougher for the Chargers, yes they still had the Bianco brothers Drew and Ben, while adding younger brother Sam into the mix and the Stinnett brothers of Carson and Parker on the mound, but they also knew what they lost a season ago.

“They came into the year with a chip on their shoulder,” Oxford head coach Chris Baughman said. “They didn’t want to be compared to last year or the year before. That’s the way they played all year. They played better than I could ever imagined.”

Along with the usual suspects, Oxford (31-5) had a season-long theme of relying on role players in big moments. Designated hitter Duncan Graeber got injured when a ball hit his hand during a game against Water Valley on March 15 and missed nearly remainder of the regular season before returning on senior night against West Point. In Greaber’s absence, Ben Bianco was moved from catcher into the infield and Clay Ivy became the everyday man behind the plate. Jacob Melendez also garnered a bigger role until Greaber returned and earned his way back into the lineup as the designated hitter once more.

Both Melendez and Greaber found their way into a lineup, only to lose their spot, then return once more and both are reasons the Chargers are playing in Pearl beginning tonight for yet another state championship. Melendez pinched-hit for CJ Terrell in the bottom of the seventh inning in Game 1 of the 5A North Half series against New Hope last Thursday, driving in winning run in walk-off fashion. On Saturday, Graeber hit a clutch two-run home run after the Trojans cut the lead to 7-5 the inning prior.

“When Duncan got hurt, (Ivy) became our everyday catcher and earned that spot and has been tremendous,” Baughman said. “You just look at it, the people that will never show up. The Bo Gatlins pitching throughout the year. Sam stepping into the leadoff spot as a freshman in a 5A back-to-back state champion program. …I tell them every year, it takes everybody. Until they see that, they don’t believe it.”

The belief began last summer when Oxford ran through the field in the annual Northeast Mississippi Coaches Association for Better Baseball (NEMCABB) tournament in New Albany. The Chargers went undefeated in the tournament as well as their entire summer schedule. While it is hard to carry that momentum into a season that does not begin until the following February, Oxford managed to do so and relied on the chemistry in the clubhouse.

“The thing about us is, we knew with the guys we lost it was going to be tough to come back,” Graeber said. “We decided this summer when we won the NEMCABB tournament that we wanted people to doubt us. We want that. We’re so used to being on top, we wanted to be the underdog this season. Then things panned out the way they did and we weren’t underdogs.”

‘David vs. Goliath’
The Chargers are not the underdog and would be considered the heavy favorites for this week’s Class 5A state championship, going up against newcomer Pearl River Central. This is the first time Pearl River (26-11) has ever reached the state championship, but they are not coming unarmed.

The Blue Devils are hitting .297 as a team with 17 home runs and 66 stolen bases along with a 2.62 ERA by their pitching staff. One player to keep an eye on is Ole Miss commit and Pearl River sophomore catcher Hayden Dunhurst, who went 4-for-8 with two three-run home runs against Hattiesburg in the 5A South Half series

“It’s a Davis vs. Goliath type of deal,” Pearl River head coach Neil Walther said. “This is our first time being here. We got good players and so do they. In baseball, anything can happen and our motto is it doesn’t matter who you play, it’s how you play.”

Game 1 is tonight at 7 with Game 2 set for Friday at 1 p.m.