Friday is the main event in college baseball’s regular season. Typically, Friday means the conference series opener. It means the aces are out. It’s a night when the lights are brightest and the tension most palbable. It’s when momentum is seized for the best-of-3 series. Or is it? Mississippi State and Ole Miss open their annual SEC battle tonight in Oxford with their best starters on the mound. State left-hander Ethan Small has been dominant: 6-1, 1.85 ERA, 122 strikeouts and 18 walks in 73 innings. UM’s Will Ethridge doesn’t have that kind of stuff but has been solid: 5-4, 2.80. Meanwhile, Southern Miss, trying to keep a grip on first place in C-USA, visits Rice and will throw its most reliable starter, Walker Powell (5-2, 2-79). State (15-9 SEC) has won six of its eight conference series. Only once have the Bulldogs lost the opening game and won the series. Ole Miss (also 15-9 in league) has won five SEC series, three of those after winning Game 1. Like State, UM only once has lost a league series after winning the opener. (Notably, the Rebels lost the opening game at LSU last weekend but came back to win the series in a wild rubber game.) USM (18-6 C-USA) has won five of eight series, winning none after losing the opener. What’s it all mean? Friday is a pretty big deal.
The Magnolia State’s NCAA Division I schools should get some good barometer readings this weekend. Mississippi State, 16-1 and ranked in everybody’s top 10, gets its first true road test of the season when it opens SEC play at nationally ranked Florida (14-5). Nationally ranked Ole Miss (12-5) starts league play with a home series against Alabama, 16-2 but unranked. Southern Miss, wobbling a bit at 8-6, begins defense of its C-USA regular season title at Louisiana Tech (11-5), which features a bunch of Mississippi connections, including coach Lane Burroughs, a former USM assistant. And at Magnolia Field in Itta Bena, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State, both still feeling their way, will lock up in a big SWAC series. JSU is 5-13 (1-2 SWAC) against a schedule that has included Boston College, Mississippi State, UNO and Miami (Fla.). Weather issues have limited Valley to six games; the Delta Devils are 1-5 (0-1 SWAC), including an 8-1 loss at Memphis on Tuesday, and have not played a home game. Equon Smith leads JSU hitters with a .348 average and has scored 15 runs. Raul Hernandez is at .309 with two homers and 16 RBIs. Wesley Reyes (.208) and Dezmond Chumley (.190), preseason All-SWAC picks, have yet to click. Morgan Lomax is hitting .409 for Valley, and Billy Leflore checks in at .381. Neither club has pitched particularly well, and that’ll probably be the key to the series. JSU has a 5.89 ERA, though Kevin Perez (2-1, 3.38) and Garth Cahill (2.18 in nine appearances) have been solid. Valley is at 9.56, having only once held an opponent to fewer than eight runs. Aaron Barkley has the lone win and a 1.50 ERA in six innings of work.
There are several big series on tap this weekend in college baseball (see Ole Miss at Texas A&M in the SEC; Southern Miss at Florida Atlantic in C-USA; Jackson State at Alcorn State in the SWAC; first-place Millsaps at Birmingham-Southern in SAA play; and first-place Blue Mountain at NAIA No. 1 Faulkner (Ala.) in the SSAC). If the recent past is prologue, we could be in for a wild weekend. To wit: On Thursday night, Ole Miss rallied for three eighth-inning runs to upend Texas A&M 5-4 in a battle of nationally ranked SEC foes in their series opener at College Station. Rebels ace Ryan Rolison wobbled, but relievers Will Ethridge (three innings, six strikeouts) and Parker Caracci (two innings, five K’s) picked him up. … On Wednesday, Mississippi Valley State beat Delta State for just the 16th time in 103 meetings, getting a 10th-inning, tie-breaking double from Aaron Barkley – who also pitched two shutout innings – at Itta Bena. Division I Valley is 5-16, D-II No. 1-ranked Delta State 19-4. In Jackson, Tougaloo spanked Alcorn State 9-1 as Lige Mims threw a complete game and drove in two runs. The NAIA Bulldogs, who visit MUW on Saturday, are 12-11; D-I Alcorn, which might have been looking ahead to its series with JSU, is 6-14. In the juco ranks, unranked Hinds Community College went to Ellisville and handed third-ranked Jones County Junior College its first home defeats of the season. Staton Todd (homer, double) and Andrew Beasley fueled the 6-5 Game 1 win with their bats, and the Eagles (14-3, 3-1 MACJC) rode the arms of Caleb Morgan and Josh Banes to a 4-1 victory in Game 2. Jones slipped to 15-5 (10-2 at home) and 2-2 MACJC. Meanwhile, East Central, ranked 13th, moved to 4-0 in the league with a sweep of Southwest behind the hitting of Wyatt Ball, who cycled over the two games. Pearl River, at 2-0, is the only other team still unbeaten in league play.
Conference play starts this weekend for the state’s Big 3 Division I schools. Each is playing at home, and there should be an upbeat vibe for all three. Southern Miss is nationally ranked, sports a 12-4 record and just blasted Tulane 12-3 on Wednesday night in New Orleans. And there’s even more good news for Golden Eagles fans: Matt Wallner is heating up. The 2017 national freshman of the year homered against the Green Wave, just his second of the year but second in the last three games. Wallner, a .336 hitter with 19 bombs in 2017, is batting .298. USM opens Conference USA play against Texas-San Antonio in Hattiesburg. Ole Miss, which welcomes Tennessee to Oxford to launch SEC play, is on an even steeper roll. The Rebels, a top 10 team, bashed Georgia State 16-2 on Wednesday in Atlanta to move to 17-1. Who’s hot? Cole Zabowski, to pick just one. He went 3-for-4 with a home run and four RBIs vs. the Panthers and is at .310 with three homers and 13 RBIs on the season. Mississippi State stumbled on Wednesday, losing to Southeastern Louisiana 11-5 in Biloxi. Jake Mangum continued to swing a hot bat, however, going 2-for-5. He is hitting .351 with 11 runs and seven steals. The Bulldogs take a 10-7 record into their SEC series against Vanderbilt in Starkville, but note they are 4-1 at renovated Dudy Noble Field, where the home-field edge is palpable. P.S. Jackson State, 5-1 in the SWAC, takes on Alabama State (4-2) this weekend in Montgomery in a key league series. JSU is 12-4 overall after a twinbill split at Morehead (Ky.) State. In a 4-0 win that was halted by snow on Tuesday and completed Wednesday, Jesus Santana hit his fourth homer of the year. Jarvis Warner has boosted his average to .364.
Mississippi is having a heck of a year on the college diamonds, and it ain’t over yet. Southern Miss’ Dylan Burdeaux won Conference USA player of the year honors today, giving the state four such honorees. Burdeaux joins Mississippi State’s Brent Rooker (SEC), Delta State’s Zack Shannon (Gulf South) and William Carey’s James Land (SSAC) as top dogs in their league. (Rooker beat out Burdeaux and Shannon for the Ferriss Trophy that goes to the state’s best player.) For what it’s worth, Jackson State’s Bryce Brown had a pretty good case for SWAC POY, and Itawamba Community College’s Tyreque Reed (a State commit) led NJCAA Division II in hitting with an amazing .504 average. DSU, Carey and Hinds CC are all bound for the World Series at their respective levels. The NCAA Division I schools are only just beginning their quest for Omaha, with USM looking like it might have a realistic shot.
In a recent online chat, a Baseball America scribe made a prediction for this summer’s college Team USA roster that included three players from Mississippi: State’s Konnor Pilkington, Ole Miss’ Dallas Woolfolk and Southern Miss’ Matt Wallner. They are worthy candidates – and certainly worthy of keeping an eye on this weekend as the Big 3 charge toward tournament season. Pilkington, the sophomore left-hander out of East Central High, is slated to start today at Georgia. He is just 5-4 in 12 starts, but his wins have been big ones for the Bulldogs, 32-17 and 16-8, tied for best in the SEC. He has a 3.82 ERA with 84 strikeouts in 73 innings. Woolfolk, a sophomore out of DeSoto Central, has been a solid closer for Ole Miss, which faces a crucial series against nationally ranked Texas A&M in Oxford. While both State and USM are projected as regional hosts in Baseball America’s latest mock NCAA Tournament field, the Rebels (29-20, 11-13) aren’t in at all. Woolfolk has 10 saves, three wins and a 1.91 ERA in 23 appearances. USM (37-12, 19-5 C-USA) can clinch the conference title this weekend against UAB in Hattiesburg. Wallner, a freshman from Minnesota, has been just one of several mashers in the Golden Eagles lineup. The 6-foot-5 outfielder leads the team with 15 homers and is batting .328 (.447 on-base) with 47 RBIs. He also has three saves and a 1.84 ERA on the mound. P.S. East Central Community College has advanced to the NJCAA Region 23 Tournament with a two-game sweep of Mississippi Delta in their best-of-3 series. Game 1 winners on Thursday were Hinds, Northwest and Pearl River. No. 1-ranked Jones County and LSU-Eunice received byes to the six-team region tournament, which starts next week at Ellisville.
Tough call on the hottest spot this weekend. You could go with Hattiesburg, where Southern Miss and Florida Atlantic will face off for first place in Conference USA. Or you could go with College Station, Texas, where SEC championship contenders Mississippi State and Texas A&M are hooking up; the Aggies won Game 1 9-2 on Thursday. Of course, in Gainesville, Fla., you’ve got Ole Miss, battling for an NCAA regional spot, taking on Florida, also still in the SEC title conversation. Meanwhile, at Braddy Field in Jackson, Jackson State looks to secure first place in the SWAC East when it meets Alabama A&M. Cast a glance, too, at Montgomery, Ala., where William Carey plays Faulkner today in a winner’s bracket game in the SSAC Tournament. The loser will play Blue Mountain later today in an elimination game; the Toppers stayed alive on Thursday by whipping Martin Methodist 11-1. Carey already has earned an NAIA regional host bid. But hold on. Even with all of this other stuff going on, Cleveland wins. The Gulf South Conference Tournament begins Saturday at Ferriss Field with both top seed Delta State and seventh-seeded Mississippi College in action in separate four-team pools. The only way the two could meet again is in the championship game on Tuesday. DSU has won 13 tournament titles and, considering how the Statesmen dominated the regular season, is the odds-on favorite to win again. MC, officially back in the NCAA Division II GSC this season after 20-plus years, qualified for the tournament with an impressive late surge that included a win over Delta State last week. Second-year coach Jeremy Haworth’s team went 20-25 overall. MC’s last GSC Tournament appearance came in 1996, when the Choctaws went 2-and-out. The team’s best result came in 1984, when it won the South Division Tournament and lost to North Alabama in the championship series. P.S. Awards have been rolling in, including GSC player and coach of the year honors for DSU’s Zack Shannon and Mike Kinnison; SSAC player of the year for Carey’s James Land; and a national player of the week award for MC’s Blaine Crim. … The five finalists for the Ferriss Trophy will be named on Sunday, May 14. The announcement ceremony, featuring former Ole Miss star and big leaguer Don Kessinger, is May 22.
It should be posted in the dugouts at Oxford-University Stadium this weekend as a warning to hitters: “Danger: High Voltage.” Ole Miss and Vanderbilt pitchers have been dealing electric stuff. Their staffs rank 2-3 in the SEC in ERA, first and fourth in batting average against and second and fifth in strikeouts. Ole Miss pitchers have thrown five shutouts in the team’s last six games. Rebels starters have worked 43 2/3 scoreless innings over those six games, one of which Ole Miss (12-5) actually lost. Regardless of the competition, that’s strong. The UM staff ERA has shrunk to 2.40. Opposing batters are hitting .185. Eight pitchers with at least 11 innings of work have ERAs under 4.00. Five are under 2.00, including Andy Pagnozzi (0.82) and Will Ethridge (1.15). David Parkinson (3-1, 2.52) is the reigning SEC pitcher of the week after tossing eight scoreless innings against Furman last Friday. Vanderbilt (12-6), which has a reputation for trotting out quality arms, has a 2.58 ERA, led by freshman starter Drake Fellows, who is 3-0 with a 1.00. Neither team has been a behemoth with the bats, but Ole Miss has been particularly puny. The Rebels have scored only 79 runs and rank 13th in the league in batting and last in slugging. So, if you like good pitching, this series should be crackling with excitement. P.S. Mississippi State (12-6) visits Arkansas to open SEC play in a series that matches the top two home run-hitting teams in the league. The Razorbacks have 25, the Bulldogs 19. Arkansas’ Dominic Smith and Grant Koch are tied with State’s Brent Rooker for second in the individual ranking with five homers apiece. … Southern Miss (13-4) is at Louisiana Tech to start C-USA play. Tech’s first year coach, Lane Burroughs, is a Mississippi College alum and former Southern Miss assistant. He also played at Meridian Community College when current USM coach Scott Berry was an assistant there.
The state’s college teams have played enough games to where the stats are starting to be meaningful. Mississippi State’s Jake Mangum, the 2016 SEC batting champ and Ferriss Trophy winner, isn’t experiencing any apparent symptoms of a sophomore slump. The Jackson Prep product currently leads the SEC in hits with 26; he’s second in runs (20) and fifth in hitting (.456). Brent Rooker sits third in the league with 18 RBIs. … Ole Miss pitcher Will Ethridge ranks second in the league in batting average against (.082) and fourth in strikeouts (26), while teammates Dallas Woolfolk and Will Stokes are tied for second with two saves apiece. … Southern Miss’ Taylor Braley is second in C-USA in on-base percentage (.542) and first in walks (12), while Mason Irby leads the loop in sacrifices with five. Hayden Roberts’ 25 strikeouts ranks second among C-USA pitchers. … Lamar Briggs is crushing it for Jackson State, leading the SWAC in batting (.429) and slugging (.571). The Tigers’ C.J. Newsome ranks first in runs (15), Jonathan Aponte first in wins (three) and Jose Tirado t-first in saves (two). … Alcorn State’s Jason Sanez is No. 2 in SWAC hitting at .375, and Mississippi Valley State’s Jackson Webb is second in slugging (.563). Webb and teammate Arrington Smith have two homers each, ranking second in the SWAC. … Delta State, 12-4 and ranked as high 18th in NCAA Division II, is led by Zack Shannon, whose 20 RBIs rank fifth in the Gulf South Conference; his .403 average is ninth. With four homers, Clay Casey is tied for fifth. Tre Hobbs’ 29 strikeouts is sixth-best in the league. … Mississippi College’s Casey Echols (son of former State star Tracy Echols) is seventh in the GSC with a .404 average while leading the Choctaws in hits and runs. … William Carey’s Tyler Graves tops SSAC hitters with a .443 average and is No. 2 in RBIs with 32. Adrian Brown is first in runs (28), Tyler James in stolen bases (19) and Lane Fazende in ERA (0.81). James Land’s four homers rank fourth. … Blue Mountain’s Miciah Heard is third in the SSAC with 17 steals, while teammate Caleb Leach, having a big year, is eighth in batting at .368. … Millsaps’ Jacob Mardick, a junior left-hander, leads the Southern Athletic Association with 31 K’s and is third in ERA at 2.28. He is 3-0 for an 8-8 team. … Belhaven’s Terrell Hodges is third in the American Southwest Conference with a .735 slugging average, and Daniel Ammirati is tied for second with seven doubles.
The dust has settled and things are chill again in Hattiesburg – we assume – after what was hailed as one of the great moments in Taylor Park history on Sunday. So much to remember from Southern Miss’ 2-1 victory over Rice, which clinched just the second series win ever for the Golden Eagles over the perennially powerful Owls. There was, of course, Daniel Keating’s pinch-hit single that delivered the winning run in the bottom of the ninth. Hunter Slater’s walk to start the ninth. Tracy Hadley’s bunt. Kirk McCarty going seven-plus. Chuckie Robinson belting a home run. Nick Sandlin getting the last four outs. USM climbed out of the postgame dogpile and into first place alone in C-USA. The Eagles are also climbing in the national polls. But Eagle Nation needs to remember this, too: USM went 35-16-1 in 2015 and did not get an NCAA Tournament invitation. The 2016 Eagles, at 29-12, need to keep winning, starting Tuesday when nationally ranked Louisiana-Lafayette comes to town. Sunday’s win over Rice could be one of those defining moments that successful teams like to look back on. But it’ll lose much of its luster if the Eagles can’t ride the momentum over the next few weeks.