FLOWOOD — Few teams have benefitted more from timely hitting and strong pitching performances down the stretch than the Northwest Rankin, and the Cougars were at it again Tuesday night in the MHSAA 6A South State Finals opener against Oak Grove.
Nick Monistere threw a complete-game shutout and catcher Brady Thomas provided three RBIs on two big hits to power the Cougars past the Warriors 4-0 at Wesley Scarborough Field.
Northwest Rankin (26-6) can clinch South State with a win in Game Two Wednesday night at Oak Grove. Game Three, if necessary, would be Thursday night in Flowood.
“We’re confident right now,” first-year Northwest Rankin coach K.K. Aldridge said. “I knew we were going to be a little bit rusty coming out tonight, just because of the long layoff… but I thought our guys competed well tonight and we’re excited to get back on the field tomorrow night and hopefully put another complete game together.”
They might get the sweep, but the Cougars probably won’t get another pitching performance like the one Monistere put on display Tuesday.
The Southern Miss commit gave up just three hits and two walks in seven innings of work. He threw 65 of his 108 pitches for strikes and struck out seven Oak Grove hitters.
He said early on he didn’t have his best stuff, but you couldn’t tell it looking at the scoreboard.
“I got a bunch of swing and miss on the slider,” Monistere said. “The fastball was there at times, but the slider was my go-to pitch tonight. It just seems like everyone, including me, is playing with some confidence and has been all season. It might not have shown in the record early on in the season, but we’ve been very good down the stretch.”
The Cougars took an early 1-0 lead after loading the bases on a single and a couple of walks to open the bottom of the second inning. Oak Grove starter Joseph Clearman almost got out it unscathed, but NWR’s Chris Tillman hit a one-out grounder to short and beat out the throw to first on what was nearly a double play.
The lead grew to 2-0 in the third inning on a Brady Thomas RBI single, and the junior catcher broke it open in the fifth with a two-out single that plated two more runs.
“I saw the ball really well tonight,” Thomas said. “(Clearman) didn’t have anything he could really blow by us, so I just had to sit back and wait on most of the balls and hit it. I think that’s what everyone did, and we put a bunch of hits on the board.”
The Cougars pounded out seven total hits and drew four walks. The start was Clearman’s first of the season for Oak Grove, which came into the series after losing its top two starters to injury.
The senior had worked just one inning prior to Tuesday night, but pitched well enough to keep the Warriors (23-7) in the game. All four of Northwest Rankin’s runs were earned, but he only walked four batters and threw 60 of his 103 pitches for strikes.
Oak Grove coach Chris McCardle said he made the decision to start Clearman in the series opener late Monday night.
“He went above and beyond what I had asked him to do,” McCardle said. “He pitched well enough to give us a chance to compete. Hats off to Monistere — he kept us off balance and off the bases. But we haven’t played well on the road in any post-season series this year for whatever reason. We have to get the bats going tomorrow to stay alive in this series.”
McCardle said he had not made a decision on a Game Two starter. Northwest Rankin will send Blake Summerlin to the mound Wednesday to try to get the sweep.