May 25—The team with no home will soon have its time under the bright lights of Trustmark Park, home of the Mississippi Braves and, next week, the Class 3A baseball state championships.
Two months after a tornado wiped out their baseball field, the Amory Panthers are heading back to Pearl to finish what they originally set out to do this year: repeat as state champions. The team's motto before the season and before the storm was, "One team, one mission, one chance." That rang especially true once the tornado rolled through town.
"We talked about that after the storm, we've got one team, there's one mission, there's one chance," Amory head coach Chris Pace said. "We've lost our field, we've lost the ability to have our people and cheer us on there, which was a special place to be."
While the baseball field has been more or less cleared of debris, the Panthers haven't played a true home game since the tornado. They've bounced around from place to place, like using Hamilton's field as their home ballpark in the North finals. Pace said they have a trailer that has everything they need outside of personal stuff, and senior Ty Hester mentioned a new nickname.
"Call us road dogs for a reason," he said. "We're away, but the whole community's coming, and it's like a home game, almost. Everybody's here cheering you on. It's amazing."
Hester recounted how the tornado affected every house in his neighborhood, except for his. He and his father helped some elderly neighbors remove trees from their driveway as soon as they could. Playing baseball and helping out wherever they can has been part of the daily routine for Amory.
"We've been together for probably almost half a day every single day just helping each other out," Hester said. "Whether that's helping somebody move, clean up, practicing baseball, we've got a very good team chemistry right now."
The night the tornado hit, senior Tyler Sledge was with a friend in the team's indoor facility. The two left only a few minutes before the indoor facility was destroyed by the twister.
"We left, and just a few minutes later, it was gone," he said. "It's crazy to think that if we hung around for just a few minutes, we might not even be here to tell the story of what happened."
Not only was the indoor facility a place for the players to practice, but it was a popular hangout spot for the team, too.
"We had nice facilities, we had everything right there for us," Sledge said. "And then in three or four seconds, it was just all taken away from us."
Amory beat Center Hill in what would be its final home game on March 23, even if the Panthers didn't know it at the time. The tornado hit the following night, and Amory wouldn't take the field again until a road game against Saltillo on April 1.
This is a senior class that already had its freshman season cut short by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Losing another year to something out of its control would be beyond devastating, especially in a year where everyone believed the Panthers could repeat as state champions.
"The coming days after (the tornado), we were unsure whether or not we would even get the chance to line something up to where we could finish our season out," Sledge said. "We knew if we could, we could be back where we were last year, but we just didn't know if it would happen. To see it all fall together, it's a great feeling."
That first game back against Saltillo was an emotional experience for all involved. Though Amory lost, it marked a return to some kind of normalcy.
"It was an emotional, moving day for all of us," Pace said. "We didn't win, we got beat 5-3. But we got a chance to play baseball again."
Baseball has been the Panthers' escape from everything that's happened and everything they've had to go through for the last couple months. It makes winning as much as they have this year feel even sweeter.
"It's great because you come out here and you just look at the destruction that the storm caused, and then you get a text (saying that) we've got practice at 2:00 in the afternoon," Sledge said. "Well, you get a couple hours to go out and take your mind off it, hang out with your friends and hit some baseballs around and stuff and just have some fun."
"I think when we came back after the storm, just a chance to go play baseball, you saw some kids just light up," Pace added. "Our dugout's always been great here, but it's electric."
Wins on the baseball field kept coming for Amory. The Panthers made their way past Rosa Fort, Booneville and Water Valley before sweeping Kossuth to capture the North half championship.
Regardless of what happens in Pearl, Pace acknowledged how much it took from his players to reach this point after everything they've been through together. But bringing home another state title to their recovering town would be an ending of which even a Hollywood script writer would be jealous.
"We're going to try to defend that state title; (they've) already put their mark on it with last year and the storm and coming back and making this run," Pace said. "They're writing their own story. Last year, and then it's like, 'This is our chapter' or whatever. We're at the end, we're in the last chapter. We're winding it down."