By Jamie Wachter / Sports Editor
The Meridian Star
The goal was established before the season began and nothing was going to stop it.
Not even the annual run-in with the four-time defending state champions. Not even torn ligaments in the pitching elbow of star Blake McMullen in the second round of the postseason. Not even dropping the opener in the South State championship series or being forced into a third game again in the Class 3A state title series.
Nope, nothing was going to come in between Southeast Lauderdale and a state championship, the baseball program's first since 1966.
"I'd do it again," McMullen said about the drive and determination that netted the Tigers the top sports story of 2012 by The Star. "If I had the chance to do the same thing, I'd do it again even getting hurt. I wouldn't change a thing."
McMullen had a huge hand in that effort even after being forced into a limited role against St. Andrew's and Kossuth the final two rounds of the postseason. While still providing a lethal bat in the middle of the Tigers' lineup, McMullen was forced out of the Southeast rotation and defensive lineup after throwing two gems – and his right arm out –against perennial power Sumrall in Round 3.
There, the senior gave the Tigers a huge lift against their nemesis –Sumrall had eliminated Southeast the previous two seasons. But this time was going to be different.
"We went into it with the mindset that basically, losing wasn't an option," McMullen said. "We didn't hope to win, we expected to win. And we established that at the beginning. Our goal wasn't to win district or to get to South State. In 11th grade, our main goal was to get to Sumrall. In 12th grade, the goal was to win the whole thing and we established that.
"That's what I mean when I said we expected it."
"We talked about it all the time, how this was a process," coach Shay Cooper said. "They had gotten a taste of it, and this year when they had an opportunity they made the most of it. They just weren't going to be denied."
And McMullen made sure of it. In the series opener, McMullen threw a no-hitter, striking out 13 Bobcats in handing Sumrall its first playoff loss in 33 games. The Bobcats, though, forced a third game but McMullen was again up to the task. While not as sharp as Game 1, he again dominated - striking out 15, including the side in the seventh, and allowed just one hit.
But in the process, McMullen tore ligaments in his elbow and would need Tommy John surgery to repair, forced into the lineup only for the rest of the postseason.
"The night he hurt his arm, we were concerned but we weren't concerned about his arm," Cooper said. "It was just a freak thing. But that night when we went out to check on him, it was for his back. He had followed through wrong on one of his pitches and tweaked his back. So we were worried about his back. We weren't concerned with his arm and neither was Blake.
"But Blake, even after he got hurt and his role became a little more limited, he was such a great leader and such a great kid, that everybody else looked up to him and followed his lead."
Added McMullen: "When I hurt my arm, coach Cooper was in full support for doing what was best for me as for as my health goes and to do whatever to keep me healthy. But there was no way I was coming out of that game with one out left.
"He was more concerned with my health than winning the game. But I was more concerned with winning the game."
Still, Southeast marched on in pursuit of that season-long goal. After the Saints won the first game of the South State series, the Tigers won two straight including the clincher behind a dominating performance from Ledarious Clark, who struggled with his control in Game 1.
"We just tried to play our game," Clark said. "Whenever we got beat, it was usually because we beat ourselves. If we came out and hit the ball, played defense like we were supposed to, that we were going to have success."
And in the state championship series, it was Colby Ramey's turn to shine. The senior silenced the Aggies in Game 1 and came back to grind out the title-clinching win.
"Ramey and Clark stepped up bigger than I've ever seen them before," McMullen sId. "Our whole team really didn't miss a beat. They just kept on trucking."
But that reliance on different players was the recipe for Southeast's success all season. Buoyed by a deep senior class, the talented Tigers threw a lineup full of weapons at opponents. While McMullen was the Class 3A Player of the Year, Clark, Ramey and catcher Matt Miller were also All-State selections. And underclassmen Gage Hagen and Mason Irby were also crucial to the championship. Irby, just a sophomore, delivered the game-winning hit in the championship clincher.
"If we hadn't been as deep or as balanced as we were, we never would have made it through that thing," Cooper said. "There was so many days where a different player stepped up. I'm just so thankful we had those unexpected heroes that stepped up for us.
"I think about this all the time, I don't know how many teams could lose their horse right there even before South State and still able to pull the thing off. It says so much about the Colby Rameys, and Ledarious and Josh Litchfield, and all those guys stepping up. It would have been real easy at that point to say, 'Well our guy went down. And we just couldn't do it after that.
That hit, that win and that title are something that these Tigers won't ever forget.
"It's something I still think about," McMullen said. "I will remember that for the rest of my life. When it first happened, we were thankful but it didn't surprise me, I expected it all year, I expected a state championship.
"But now looking back on it, it's one of those things where you realize how thankful you are and how rare it is."
Said Cooper: "There's a lot of pride amongst our guys and the whole community. There are still people talking about it, just leaves you with a great feeling. And I think that's the best part of it."