It’s Official: Freedom Ridge hub of activity

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 17, 2004

This past week the new Freedom Ridge Park in Ridgeland hosted yet another popular sports function.

A week ago fans enjoyed a Major League Soccer preseason game, and some 6,000 folks watched that contest. Last week brought the second renewal of the M&F Fast Pitch Classic, matching Madison Central and Southaven in the first game.

Madison Central, ranked No. 1 in the state, was coming off an eight-inning 1-0 win over the Lady Chargers in a Clinton tournament a week prior.

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Southaven, the defending state champions, was ranked No. 3 in the state. Madison Central won the latest game, 5-0, and solidified its revenge for losing a number of games to Southaven, including the finals in North State a year ago.

The umpires for the high school game were Craig Endris and Jim Darnell. Craig, from Canton, has officiated for 23 years and officiates only slow- and fast-pitch softball. He also umpired the 2003 high school game in the M&F Classic. Craig and Jim both umpire some small-college softball.

Darnell, from Clinton, is a veteran of 25 seasons of umpiring. Until recently, he also umpired some baseball and officiated basketball as well. Both worked an excellent game.

Both teams’ pitchers had precise control, which meant that they were able to paint the corners and tease the strike zone high and low the entire game.

The hitters for both teams were well disciplined, resulting in a lot of close ball-strike calls for the plate umpire to call. Those who have watched slow-pitch know most plays at first base are close.

These guys were good &045; the only disputed play involved a catcher’s throw to third, which almost caught the runner off base. One of the coaches argued the safe call, but only for about three seconds.

The second game pitted Mississippi State against Southern Miss in a rematch of the 2003 Classic. Last year’s contests were played at Madison’s Liberty Park, and it is planned for the M&F Classic to alternate between the two sites.

This year’s games drew 695 fans for the high school game and 1,072 for the college contest. State gained revenge over Southern for the 2003 defeat with the win.

The college umpiring crew was headed by plate umpire Chad Stears of Raymond, who has 11 years of umpiring under his belt and started at age 17.

Though Stears is now only 27, he has umpired in the SEC for eight years and also umpires softball in C-USA and small-college competition. Chad has been selected to work this year’s SEC softball tournament.

This is what football fans call the third season. Spring practice is actually about the sixth season. There are the recruiting and signing season, spring practice, summer camps, preseason practice, bowl season and regular season.

Many football officials are getting in their own spring practice by officiating scrimmages and spring games. Though the 2004 rules changes have yet to be published, most officials and coaches know what they will involve and will practice and officiate with them in mind.

And that’s official.

Al Graning is a former SEC official and former Natchez resident. Reach him at