By the time the Bryan Packers played Tuscaloosa’s Hillcrest on June 11, the season was almost two weeks old.
The Packers took a pair of games, winning 9-7 and 7-5. It was their first wins on the season.
“Some couldn’t come at the beginning,” Packers coach Frank Portera said. “They came on a little later in the year. You’ve got graduation stuff, you’ve got senior trips, you’ve all this stuff. There’s a couple of weeks in there before you can get everybody together where so much is going on that we didn’t get together until a week or two until after the season had started.”
Those first few games, they were short as many as eight players, and in the first two faced a Tupelo team that had Mississippi State signees Jeffery Rea and Mitch Moreland, Ole Miss signees Will Kline and Jon Jon Hancock and Kentucky signee Kevin Caldwell. Moreland currently plays first base for the Texas Rangers. Rey went on to be the all time hits leader at MSU. Kline was drafted in the second round of the 2005 MLB draft by the Seattle Mariners and Caldwell later transferred to Delta State.
“We had a lot of in-state competition,” former Packer Josh Johnson said. “Toward the end of the year, it really came down to us and Tupelo. They had a lot of good guys, they had a lot more SEC-caliber, D-one players than we did.
“They had a lot more talent than we did, but we always played those guys really competitively.”
The season, however, may have turned on a tournament in Birmingham. After defeating Birmingham Baseball 4-1 and the Alabama Cobras 8-1, the Packers tied a game with Gardendale 4-4 before defeating the North Mississippi Chiefs 7-0.
In the final game, the Packers blasted four home runs, including two by Dustin Snider.
“We got to go to Rickwood Stadium over in Birmingham,” Johnson said. “It’s a real old stadium, it was real neat to play in. I hit a home run in that stadium. That was one of the things that still sticks with me, that home run, that I can always take with me. It was a big park, an old time stadium in the middle of Birmingham.”
During the regular season, Birmingham was as far as the team travelled.
“I wasn’t hardcore on them,” Portera said. “When we would go out to a place, travel, I would tell them, I’d say ‘Fellas, look, if you don’t perform, you don’t play. It’s your decision what you want to do.’ They didn’t give us a minute’s worth of trouble, never gave us any trouble. I’m sure as kids will be and young men will do, they hid some stuff from me, just like I did when I was playing. I didn’t know everything they were doing. I didn’t want to know everything they were doing.”
Jarrod McDaniel, now administrative manager with the West Point Park and Recreation Department covered the Bryan Packers that year.
“It was just a fun group,” McDaniel said. “Everybody got along great and things came together and there was just a great harmony with that team. Everybody had fun, joked with each other, got serious when they had to. It was very, very fun going out to cover them.
“It’s always fun when you can cover sports for a living, but that just made it extra fun knowing I was gonna get to see some great baseball. Plus, all the players and the fans and Coach Portera were so great to me, it made it extra fun.”
Starting July 18, the Packers played four games in two days, a double-header against South Tuscaloosa at William Earl Taylor Field in West Point and another pair at Houston.
By then, the West Point team was white-hot, outscoring the teams 52-10 in the four contests.
After defeating Tuscaloosa Post 234 6-2 at home, the Packers went into the last weekend of the regular season to face the Bama Bombers, riding a streak of 12 wins in the last 13 games.
But the Bombers swept the weekend, taking all three games.
Portera was quoted in the July 31 story as saying “We’re as ready as we’ll ever be. This series prepared us for (the state tournament) this weekend.” By the time Friday night rolled around, William Earl Taylor Field was alive and the Packers were ready.
Drew Judon pitched all nine innings, giving up three runs on seven hits in the 9-3 win. Cleveland stranded nine runners.
Corey Carter and Rod Williams had three hits each. Scottie Jacobs had a pair of hits, including a double. David Nanney hit a double. Lance Martin and Snyder had a hit apiece. In the second round of the state, the Packers defeated New Albany 17-7.
Williams finished with four hits; a pair of home runs and a double, only a triple short of hitting for the cycle. Martin also had four hits, including three doubles. Snyder also had four hits, including a pair of doubles. Johnson and Brett Patton had a couple of hits apiece. Taylor Robertson added a hit.
In the third round, the Packers defeated Tupelo 3-2, starting with a Carter home run off Tupelo’s Moreland. Moreland later beaned Scottie Jacobs with the bases loaded, scoring Martin. Carter batted next, beating out a throw by Tupelo’s new pitcher, Tim Senter, to score Nanney.
Johnson earned the win, giving up a pair of runs in five and two-thirds inning before giving way to Joby Garner who shutout the 49er’s in the final three and one-third. In the state final against Tupelo, the Packers raced out to a 9-1 lead, including a Williams towering two-run home run. The 49er’s could only manage a single run off pitchers Jeff Schafer and Tyler Hunter before picking up six more runs in the eighth.
Brandon McGarity came into record the final four outs of the game without allowing a base runner.
The 9-7 victory was the eighth straight win in state tournament play for the Packers. Carter finished the game with three hits, including a pair of doubles, Williams had two hits, including his third inning homer, while Nanney and Martin had a hit apiece.
After the game, Portera said “I don’t mind telling you that I wasn’t anxious to play Tupelo again. They have a very solid ball club and will be very strong next year.”
Portera’s words would prove to be prophetic; Tupelo would, in fact, win the state tournament in 2003.
But by then, American Legion baseball in Mississippi had changed. It wouldn't be long before West Point changed, too.