SA seniors conclude careers with victories
By JOEL COLEMAN
As far as walk-off hits go, Starkville Academy senior Kyle Henson rewrote the book Thursday night at Volunteer Field.
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Playing in his final game for SA along with classmates Ian Tharp and Adam Crittenden, Henson delivered the clinching blow in each of the Vols' two games against Clarksdale-Lee Academy.
After punching in the final run of a 15-5 win over the Mustangs in Thursday's first contest, Henson repeated the script a little more than two hours later as SA completed the sweep with a 13-3 victory.
The latter hit not only wrapped up the game and SA's season, but the careers of Henson, Tharp and Crittenden.
Talk about a bittersweet base hit.
"During school, we were all three talking about it, how these were our last games and we weren't going to be emotional," said Henson. "(Crittenden) was the very one saying he wasn't going to cry and he teared up first. But it's all fun. It had to happen sooner or later. At least we could do it together."
It was indeed a group effort for the SA seniors in their final night as a unit on the baseball diamond.
At the plate, in the field and on the mound, Henson, Tharp and Crittenden combined to be their team's heartbeat on their last evening as Vols.
"You couldn't ask for a better way to go out," said SA head coach Neal Henry. "Those three seniors, they stepped up today and just played like it was their last games. That's what you want. You want them to play like it's their last one and they sure did."
While the pitching efforts of sophomore Drew Pellum paved the way for SA's first win Thursday, the nightcap turned into a bit of a going-away party for Henson, Tharp and Crittenden.
Henson had a pair of hits, drove in three runs and scored twice. One of those runs came on a steal of home.
Tharp gave up five hits and three unearned runs while striking out four in a complete-game, five-inning mound effort.
At the plate, Tharp also had a hit and drove in two runs.
Crittenden drove in a run while also serving as the backstop for Tharp's strong pitching performance.
In Crittenden's eyes, the evening's events served as an excellent ending to his career.
"This has been my life, playing sports," said Crittenden. "I'd like to thank the team for playing hard. I hope they play this hard next year and do good for themselves."
According to Henry, the future of the SA program is indeed bright. A large part of that has to do with the contributions of Henson, Tharp and Crittenden.
"Adam, he just does everything you want," said an emotional Henry. "He's always been a great team guy who cheers on his team. He's just a great kid who does the right things.
"Ian, anytime we needed someone to do something, he did it. From last year to this year, he's gotten so much better offensively and he's one of the best outfielders we have too. Kyle has led this team all year. He's been solid at the plate for us all year and solid at shortstop. We're definitely going to miss all three of them. They are all three great kids."
With Thursday's two wins, SA concluded the year with a 12-17 overall record and a 7-13 conference mark.
Though a playoff run didn't happen, Tharp says that doesn't spoil the year for himself or his fellow seniors.
"Everybody played their hearts out," said Tharp. "We all stuck through it together to the end."
Now that the end has arrived, Tharp says he didn't anticipate taking it so hard.
"I didn't think it'd be this tough at all," said Tharp. "But we played the game and played our hearts out and it made me realize how much I'm going to miss this."
As much as Henson, Tharp and Crittenden all may miss their time as Vols, their now-former coach says his team will have just as tough of a time trying to replace the tools the trio brought to the table.
As best as he could, Henry tried to sum up what his seniors meant to the 2011 Vols.
"You couldn't ask for three better seniors," said Henry. "All three of them have their head on straight and all three of them do the right things. They're going to make it in life. They're great kids. Anything I've ever asked them to do, they say 'yes sir' and go on about their business.
"You couldn't ask for any better kids to coach than those three."