By JOEL COLEMAN
East Webster's Wes Johnson has been coaching high school baseball for over two decades now.
In that span of time, the Starkville Daily News All-Area Baseball Coach of the Year had just about seen it all.
Then came April 27.
In the wee hours of that Wednesday morning, a tornado ravaged East Webster's Cumberland campus, causing massive destruction.
In the storm's wake, the Wolverines' baseball field was left unplayable.
With the playoffs slated to continue just two days later, the damage could have been seen as a tragedy.
The Wolverines instead chose to view the circumstances as a blessing.
"We were just all so thankful and felt so blessed that we didn't have any loss of life and didn't have any of our kids hurt and really didn't have anybody that lost their homes," said Johnson. "We had some guys that had some property damage and things like that, but when you look at these people around like in Missouri and Tuscaloosa and so many people that are hurting, we just felt blessed that we were able to still play and still had our team together and were able to get together."
If there was ever any question, East Webster's situation demonstrated the tendency of a baseball team to adopt the character of their head coach.
Those same traits that helped Johnson and the Wolverines overcome nature's wrath also helped East Webster to a 20-8 overall record in 2011.
Sure, there are plenty of other reasons that could explain East Webster's special season that went all the way to the third round of the playoffs before ending at the hands of eventual North champion Mantachie, but perhaps the most convincing argument for the Wolverines' success was their coach's ability to put things into perspective and demonstrate the more pertinent issues of life.
"What I always try to do is just prepare those guys for what's going to take place after they graduate," said Johnson. "If we've done anything, I hope that's what we've done for those guys. I want them to be the people that are dependable at work and that are good daddies and good husbands and things like that. That's what we try to preach to them day in and day out and they really respond to that."
Once again, as they have so often in the past, Johnson's tactics worked.
Though East Webster wasn't able to ascend to the mountaintop of Mississippi high school baseball in 2011, Johnson still says he'll look back fondly on the Wolverines' year.
"We had a lot of goals when the season started, but pretty much the goal every year at East Webster is to go to (Trustmark Park in Pearl for the Class 2A championship)," said Johnson. "We didn't do that, but we won 20 games, which was one of our goals, and we won that when we beat Mantachie at Houston."
Perhaps no game demonstrated the spirit of Johnson and East Webster as well as that contest played on May 7.
With East Webster's season down to its final out against the Mustangs, Austin Halford hit a game-tying solo home run to knot the game at three apiece before the Wolverines won the game on a walk-off squeeze bunt in extra innings.
Though the victory only prolonged East Webster's season for two more days, as the Wolverines lost to the Mustangs in a decisive third game just 48 hours later, Johnson says he'll never forget his club's final win of the season.
"I'm going to remember that one for a long time," said Johnson of the game. "That was about as good of one as I've ever been a part of."
One of seven seniors from East Webster's team, Jamie McKee, recalled Johnson's demeanor during the pressure-packed contest.
"He was excited," said McKee. "He knew we had a chance to win. He kept telling us to just get that one run to win the game and that's what we did."
Though there were plenty of late heroics in Houston leading to the win that day, perhaps the unspoken hero was starting pitcher Codie Silver.
Silver allowed just three runs in the game, holding Mantachie scoreless over the contest's final six innings.
The biggest reason for Silver's solid performance was his refusal to issue free passes to Mantachie's offense.
In fact, Johnson says East Webster's entire year can be pegged largely on the ability of his pitching staff to throw strikes.
"I think we played somewhere around 175 total innings this year and we struck out about four times as many as we walked," said Johnson. "That's what we try to do. We try not to walk people. In high school baseball, if you can get away from the walks, you can be successful and that's what we did."
It's no surprise that Johnson views pitching as the key to winning baseball. After all, Johnson is a former hurler himself, once a pitcher for Mississippi State.
McKee says that particular side of Johnson rubs off on all of East Webster's pitchers.
"He's always on pitchers to throw strikes," said McKee. "That leads to wins."
As the strike-throwing led to wins and the wins bred continued success, Johnson again was able to guide an East Webster team deep into the postseason.
Johnson says he won't soon forget anything about his club's 2011 run, but standing out the most in his mind will be the way his team stood up in the face of the challenge presented by the late-April storm.
"Really what's going to stand out about this year was what we had to go through and the adversity that these kids fought through," said Johnson. "I'll always remember how the overall spirit of our campus and spirit of our school was really strengthened by this whole thing."