'We needed to come play baseball': How Amory athletics returned after devastating Mississippi tornado

SALTILLO — Corbin Gillentine had worn many hats in the previous eight days.

The senior has basically become a general contractor in the aftermath of the tornado that leveled Rolling Fork before and leveling parts of Amory on March 24.

Helping the community consumed the forefront of Gillentine's thoughts, while baseball has been relegated to an escape.

Indeed, Amory's High's baseball game against Saltillo on Saturday was a beautiful distraction for players and their families. Gillentine's solo home run in the sixth inning produced an release of joy that everyone in the stands seemed to desperately need.

Gillentine has been one of many Panthers athletes thrust into action in wake of the devastating storms, which left more than 20 dead across the state and turned buildings into rubble. The past week has been a blur — waking up around 7 a.m. and starting to clean up the destruction until the evening — all in an attempt to return Amory to some semblance of normalcy.

"I've had to learn the proper way to put a tarp on a roof," Gillentine said. "Roofing, moving trees and then the hardest thing to do: A lot of older families had antique furniture. That was the hard thing. You had to move delicate furniture."

AMORY ATHLETICS A state championship trophy and a field of ruins: What Amory baseball seniors found after tornado

OLE MISS FOOTBALL RECRUITING How Ole Miss football's use of Quinshon Judkins helped Lane Kiffin land Chris Davis

That's the new reality for students throughout Amory. Students haven't returned to school since the tornado, and their absences will continue through next week.

"When they say play every game like it's your last, you better take it forreal," senior Walker Moranto said. "You really never know."

The Panthers played their final home game of the season less than 36 hours before the tornado ripped though.

The Panthers returned to athletics on Saturday with a 5-3 loss to Saltillo. However, the result never really mattered. Amory, a proud town with a proud athletics tradition, had taken back a piece of its identity

"I think everybody needed to feel a sense of normalcy for a little bit and we got to do that today," Amory coach Chris Pace said. "We needed to come play baseball."

'It’s tough seeing the field ... become a memory'

Amory athletics director Chad Williams delivered the bad news before the storm. The school district decided to cancel the Monroe County softball tournament scheduled for Saturday. The anticipated severe weather was also enough for Williams to instruct all athletics teams to finish Friday's practices by 4 p.m.

The following morning, senior Karsen Sanders woke up to pictures of the devastation. She couldn't hold back tears as the field she played on for the last six years was in ruins.

Sanders is one of three seniors that have played their final game for Amory softball.

“It was a feeling that I never would have imagined,” senior Ali Holton said. “I never would have known that practice Friday would be the last time that I would walk into that dugout with my teammates. I realized how much that field really meant to me.

“It’s tough seeing the field you grew up playing on become a memory."

Panthers softball returned to action Saturday in a double-header against Pontotoc and Wheeler at Smithville. Driving through Amory to the tournament was another reminder of the work ahead.

“The girls woke up with a smile on their face,” Amory softball coach Jessica Seger said. “They’re excited to put their jerseys on, show up and play. But mentally, they’re still other places because there’s been people affected. We’re still hurt.

“When we had to drive past our field this morning and head to Smithville, we couldn’t even meet at our locker room to do our team breakfast and team meeting.”

MSU FOOTBALL RECRUITING Three 2024 offensive recruits Mississippi State, coach Kevin Barbay should target

OLE MISS FOOTBALL RECRUITING Why Jeremy Scott committed to Ole Miss football, coach Lane Kiffin over Mississippi State

Softball returning in the Smithville tournament was a collaboration of Smithville, Wheeler and surrounding programs coming together for Amory. The Panthers were also able to practice in Batter's Box, an indoor facility in Amory.

The baseball team practiced at Booneville on Wednesday and Smithville on Saturday, all in an effort to get ready to compete.

“It was devastating but we can’t just stop our normal lives and just dwell on it,” Cummings said. “We’ve got to get our energy back and get back on the road. We’re ready to go.”

'Our boys are resilient'

Tracy Hester couldn't wait to see her son Ty Hester take the field Saturday. The Panthers won their first state championship since 1999 last season, and the ability to defend that championship meant everything to the community.

"Our boys are resilient and don't give up," Hester said. "On Saturday morning, they were up and they worked from Saturday up until Friday so they knew their season was going to continue.

"They knew that they were going to finish what they started."

Hester knew there would be tears in the eyes of many Amory parents before Williams — a Panthers alumnus — threw out the first pitch and their children ran onto the field.

There was a moment when Derrick Moranto, another parent, questioned whether his sons would be able to defend their state title. That doubt ended Saturday.

“In a whole week and a half of nothing but chaos, these boys wanted to work and come play ball,” Derrick said.

"We’re glad that we get to come to a ballpark, something we’ve been doing since they were 6, to come watch our boys play the sport that they absolutely love. We didn’t let some tornado keep them from doing that.”

This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: How Amory baseball, softball returned after Mississippi tornadoes