By JOEL COLEMAN
With conference play just days away, it appears the Starkville Academy baseball team is ready for battle.
Facing Oak Hill Academy Tuesday in their final game before the division opener March 8, the Volunteers got a combined no-hitter from sophomores Drew Pellum and Hunter Bolin in a mercy-rule shortened 14-0 home win.
SA, who improved to 3-1, has now won three in a row since a season-opening loss to Canton Academy on Feb. 17.
"We're definitely building confidence," said second-year Vols coach Neal Henry. "Overall, I think the chemistry is really good right now. It's great, but we want to keep it going."
Tuesday's performance could go a long way towards Henry's club continuing their growth.
Pellum earned the win, going four innings, striking out nine and allowing just three baserunners – one on an error, one on a dropped third strike and one hit batsman.
"We're trying to get ahead in the count and change up our pitches," said Pellum of the SA pitching staff. "Then, when we get ahead, we'll try some breaking stuff and try to go with what's working."
Pellum relied heavily on his two-seam fastball and curveball to stifle the Raiders, who fell to 1-3.
"It definitely makes it easier for us when a pitcher throws strikes, gets ahead of people and makes (opponents) put it in play," said Henry. "That helps on the offensive end to have a pitcher with a good rhythm that gets in and out of innings fast and has shutdown innings that doesn't let (opponents) get anything after we get something."
SA's offense provided Pellum with plenty of support.
After the right-hander sat down the Raiders in order in the top of the first, the Vols answered with a six-run outburst in the home half against Oak Hill junior starting pitcher Clay Henley.
All nine spots in the SA lineup either scored a run or drove in a run in the bottom of the first as the Vols sent 10 batters to the plate in the inning for an early 6-0 lead.
Oak Hill head coach Marion Bratton said Henley wasn't even originally scheduled to be his starting hurler on Tuesday, but had to step in due to scheduled starter Adam Tumey being sick.
"It's the first time (Henley) has started for us," said Bratton. "We're trying to develop our staff. But (SA) has a good ball club. You throw a rookie pitcher out there with not very much experience and you have a couple of guys not here to help out, you just have to try and get by with what you've got."
Henley surrendered 10 of the Vols' 14 runs over his 2 2/3 innings of work to suffer the loss.
Pellum was grateful his team was able to get to Henley early and often.
"It's so much easier (to pitch with a lead)," said Pellum. "You've got your guys behind you and you just know you can throw anything up there."
On a night full of strong offensive performances, it was Bolin who perhaps shined the brightest for SA, going 3-for-3 with a walk, a stolen base, three runs scored and two RBIs.
Bolin also made a diving catch from his right field position in the first inning to spoil Oak Hill's best chance at a hit.
To cap things off, the sophomore lefty took the hill in the fifth inning and sat down the Raiders in order to end the game.
It was a fitting way to close out the contest, as SA pitchers Ian Tharp, Stephen Robertson, Pellum and Bolin have combined to allow just three runs and three hits over the Vols' last two games.
"We're all just putting the ball over the plate and trying to eliminate walks," said Pellum.
That's good news for a team that will begin division play next Tuesday at 6 p.m. hosting Washington School.
"We don't want to coast," said Henry. "We want to keep it in fifth gear and stay hungry."