The familiar “plink” of ball meeting bat is back on college campuses around the state. Fall ball begins Friday at Southern Miss, which returns 19 lettermen from a C-USA championship squad. In addition to intrasquad games, the Golden Eagles will play two scrimmages against outside competition, which is now permitted by the NCAA. USM hosts Nicholls State in Hattiesburg on Oct. 28 and visits Tulane on Nov. 4 to wind up the fall schedule. … Ole Miss also has announced its slate of scrimmages, the first of which is an intrasquad on Friday. The Rebels also will play two other teams this fall, Delta State on Oct. 13 and Arkansas-Little Rock on Oct. 27, both in Oxford. The Pizza Bowl, the intrasquad finale, is set for Nov. 2. The Rebels are coming off an SEC championship season and return All-America closer Parker Caracci. … Mississippi State, under new coach Chris Lemonis, started fall scrimmages last week. The Bulldogs are coming off a College World Series appearance – the 10th in program history – and welcomed the nation’s No. 12 recruiting class (by Baseball America) to Starkville. The freshman crop includes J.T. Ginn, the Brandon High product who was drafted in the first round by the Los Angeles Dodgers in June. … Fall ball is also under way at Delta State, where much is new. Only one regular position player – catcher Josh Russell – returns from last year’s NCAA Division II regional participant. Two new full-time assistants are now on Mike Kinnison’s staff: Blake Mathews and Slater Lott, a former Meridian Community College assistant. The Green-White Fall Series, which concludes the season, is set for Oct. 18-21. … Itawamba, Mississippi Delta and Pearl River Community Colleges will play a tripleheader of scrimmages on Oct. 5 at Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson.
Time to box up the 2018 college season. Put away the bats and balls for a few weeks and make a few acknowledgements:
If there were an award for Team of the Year, it would have to go to Mississippi State, which didn’t win as many games as Ole Miss or Southern Miss (or Delta State, for that matter) but made a captivating postseason run for the ages that ended one win short of the College World Series finals. The banana-powered Bulldogs finished 39-29 and should be nationally ranked across the board when the final polls come out. Gary Henderson did a great job as an interim coach, taking over in an adverse situation, and not retaining him seems a curious and possibly regrettable move in Starkville.
There are many other kudos to hand out. Ole Miss went 48-17, won the SEC Tournament and hosted an NCAA regional. USM (44-18) swept both C-USA titles and also went to a regional. Jackson State finished 34-18. Delta State went 42-11 and made an NCAA Division II regional, as did Mississippi College, which ended the year 36-17, one of its best seasons ever. William Carey went 36-25 and hosted an NAIA regional. Blue Mountain finished 29-23, Division III Millsaps went 25-19 and MUW, in its inaugural season, came home at 21-15 after participating in the USCAA Small College World Series. Alcorn State (13-39), Mississippi Valley State (11-35), Belhaven (12-27) and Tougaloo (19-23) were the only four-year schools to post losing records.
Among the jucos, MACJC champion Pearl River (No. 4), Meridian (14), Jones County (15) and Mississippi Gulf Coast (18) were ranked in the final NJCAA Division II poll.
Game of the year? If you limited it to games between state schools, it’d be hard to top the State-UM game at Pearl’s Trustmark Park on April 24, which the Bulldogs won on Luke Alexander’s two-run double in the bottom of the ninth before a crowd of 8,500-plus. Runner-up: MC beating Delta State 7-4 in an elimination game in the D-II South Regional at Lakeland, Fla. The Choctaws’ Billy Cameron drove in the go-ahead run with a two-run single in the seventh. Worth mentioning: Jackson State-Alcorn in Lorman on March 25. The Tigers rallied from 8-4 down in the sixth inning to win 13-8 and ended the game with a triple play.
No position player in the state had a better year than DSU’s Zack Shannon. He hit .406 with a record 31 homers and 93 RBIs and has picked up all kinds of national honors. USM’s Nick Sandlin, who also garnered national awards and beat out Shannon (and others) for the state’s Ferriss Trophy, was certainly the state’s pitcher of the year, going 10-0, 1.06 ERA in 15 starts. Gulf Coast CC’s Brandon Parker won a juco national player of the year award and both Shannon and Sandlin were semifinalists for the biggest of individual prizes, the Golden Spikes Award, a testament to the quality of ball played in the Magnolia State.
Three state schools (DSU, Carey and Hinds CC) made it to the World Series level in 2017. Only one did so this season, but it was hardly a down year.
Every team needs an ace, and Southern Miss has one. One of the best, in fact. Nick Sandlin — C-USA pitcher of the year, Ferriss Trophy winner – has been terrific. The converted closer moved to 9-0 and trimmed his ERA to 1.13 with a four-hit, 12-strikeout performance against UAB in the C-USA Tournament opener on Thursday in Biloxi. But the Golden Eagles (41-15) will need more than one golden arm to make a run in the NCAA postseason (which could well start in an Oxford Regional). Do they have that kind of depth? They just might. The other pitchers don’t get the pub afforded Sandlin, but this is a team with a staff ERA of 3.58. Both Stevie Powers and Walker Powell, the other weekend starters, have won big games. Powers, a left-hander who last pitched on May 5 because of some arm issues, notched the win on Friday, yielding two runs in seven innings in a 5-3 victory against Texas-San Antonio. He joked about following Sandlin in the USM rotation. “It’s been a tough job all year for me,” he said in a school release. He’s been up to it, going 5-1 with a 3.28 ERA. Powell, typically the No. 3, is 7-3, 3.62, and will start today in the semifinal round of the tournament. In the bullpen, Cody Carroll (2.23), Keller Bradford (3.24), Mason Strickland (3.25) and Trent Driver (4.30) have been effective, and large-looming, hard-throwing Matt Wallner has six saves despite a 7.36 ERA in his 11 appearances. Sandlin certainly leads the way for this staff, but coach Scott Berry has more cards to play than just his ace.
Not so long ago, Mississippi State was a .500 team starved for runs and searching for answers. Today, State cracked the Top 25 in Baseball America’s new poll and, as the magazine’s editors suggest, may have “lifted itself off the NCAA bubble.” BA’s projected NCAA field last week didn’t have State among the 64 teams. The Bulldogs (31-24) swept No. 1-ranked Florida at Dudy Noble Field over the weekend, putting up 31 runs against a Gators team that, it should be noted, had already clinched the SEC title and a Top 8 national seed for the NCAA Tournament. Still, it has been an impressive late surge by State, which was 19-19 on April 18 after a loss to Memphis. While the Bulldogs’ NCAA regional fate may already be determined, it would certainly help their cause if they beat LSU in the SEC Tournament opener on Tuesday. State is not in the d1baseball.com Top 25, also released today. … Ole Miss (42-14) held steady at No. 4 in the BA poll and appears assured of hosting an NCAA regional. Southern Miss (39-15) finished the regular season with a flourish, scoring 35 runs in a sweep at Marshall, and is ranked 17th. The C-USA champions are the top seed headed into this week’s conference tournament in Biloxi and are a lock for the NCAAs. … Rain has made a mess of the NCAA Division II South Region Tournament, which started last Thursday in Lakeland, Fla. Delta State, which beat Mississippi College in the first round, is scheduled to play Tampa in a winner’s bracket game today. MC is slated for a loser’s bracket game today vs. Albany State. The D-II World Series starts Saturday in Cary, N.C. … Jackson State, the last Mississippi team standing in the SWAC Tournament, bowed out Saturday when Jose Tirado, the league’s relief pitcher of the year, yielded a game-tying run in the ninth and a game-winner in the 10th of a 10-9 loss to Texas Southern. … The last state juco team standing was Meridian Community College. The Eagles upset No. 1-ranked LSU-Eunice in the NJCAA Region 23 championship round on Saturday but were eliminated by the Bengals on Sunday. MACJC champion Pearl River was eliminated by Meridian on Friday. … Rust College has transitioned from NCAA Division III to NAIA and formally becomes the eighth member of the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference this fall. The Bearcats will be the fourth GCAC school with a baseball team, joining in-state rival Tougaloo, Talladega and Edward Waters. Rust, coached by Aurby Burdine, went 0-2 against Tougaloo and 0-4 vs. Talladega in 2018. Founded in 1866 in Holly Springs, Rust is one of the nation’s oldest historically black colleges and universities.
Blue Mountain and William Carey face elimination games today in the Southern States Athletic Conference Tournament in Montgomery, Ala. BMC plays Middle Georgia State in the first game of the day, while Carey gets Loyola (New Orleans) in the next game. BMC, which lost its opener on Wednesday, stayed alive with a 4-3 win over Martin Methodist on Thursday, getting a go-ahead RBI hit from Grayson Bowman in the eighth inning. Carey won its opening round game but was crushed by top seed – and NAIA No. 1 – Faulkner 17-2 Thursday. The Crusaders, 0-4 against Faulkner this year, committed six errors and allowed 13 hits and 11 walks. … The Gulf South Conference Tournament format offers a cool possibility: Delta State and Mississippi College will play at Ferriss Field on Monday, and the Pool A championship could be on the line. The four teams in each of two pools play a round-robin starting Saturday, with the two pool winners advancing to the league title game. MC (29-15) beat DSU (38-8) in Cleveland last week, one of only four home losses for the Statesman all year. DSU — seeded No. 1, ranked third in the nation and featuring conference player of the year Zack Shannon — should be favored to win a 15th conference title, but it won’t be a cakewalk. Four other teams in the field have 30 or more wins and six, including both DSU and MC, are ranked in the NCAA Division II South Region poll. … Jackson State still has a chance to win the SWAC East title but may need a little help this weekend from Mississippi Valley State. JSU has finished league play at 17-7. Alabama State is 15-6 heading into a league series at Itta Bena to face the Delta Devils, 9-12 in the league. JSU and ASU split six games in the regular season. The SWAC Tournament starts May 16 in New Orleans. … MUW named freshman pitcher/infielder Will Peters its Male Athlete of the Year at an awards ceremony this week. Peters went 7-2 on the mound and batted .349 as the Owls finished 19-13 in their inaugural campaign.
Dalton Minton threw seven shutout innings to pace Delta State to a 2-0 win against Mississippi College on Sunday in the rubber game of a Gulf South Conference series in Cleveland. Minton allowed seven hits and struck out eight batters in running his record to 8-1 and cutting his ERA to 3.74. DSU rolls into the GSC Tournament — at Ferriss Field starting this week — with a 38-8 record. … Mason Strickland tossed 3 1/3 near-perfect innings in relief to help Southern Miss beat host Old Dominion 9-2 on Sunday and complete a C-USA sweep. Strickland allowed one hit and walked none for the Golden Eagles, now 32-11, 16-4 in conference, with nine straight wins. … Rahman Williams smacked a three-run homer to cap a five-run eighth inning as Jackson State beat Alcorn State 7-4 in the rubber game of a SWAC series on Sunday at Braddy Field. JSU is 28-15, 17-7. … On Saturday in Oxford, before a crowd of 12,000-plus, Thomas Dillard’s three-run bomb in the seventh inning carried Ole Miss to a 9-8 win over LSU in the rubber game of an SEC series. Dillard is hitting .306 with 10 homers and 47 RBIs for the Rebels (34-11, 12-9). … Also on Saturday, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College’s Kole Kittrell threw a five-inning no-hitter in a 13-0 win vs. East Mississippi CC. Kittrell fanned six and walked just one.
Well, now, that was some kind of weekend in college baseball. Mississippi State swept Arkansas. Ole Miss took two of three from Georgia. Southern Miss took three from Middle Tennessee State. Jackson State won a series against Alabama State. Alcorn State took two of three from visiting Mississippi Valley. Delta State claimed the Gulf South championship with a sweep at North Alabama as Zack Shannon broke the school’s single-season homer record. William Carey won a Saturday rubber game against Blue Mountain. Millsaps put up a fight at the SAA Tournament, going 2-2. But let’s focus for a moment, if that’s possible, on Mississippi College. The Choctaws beat West Alabama two of three at Frierson Field in Clinton, clinching a berth in the GSC Tournament for the second straight season. MC is 28-12, 17-8 in the league. Remember that the Choctaws were 17-30 two years ago in Jeremy Haworth’s first season there and 12-34 the year before he arrived. That’s some kind of progress. MC’s best hitter has been Blaine Crim, who homered and drove in three runs in Saturday’s series clincher. He is batting .380 with nine home runs and 48 RBIs, all team-bests. MC’s pitching also has improved dramatically under Haworth. The weekend starters – Chris Crosby, Hunter Mullis and Zack Ingram – are a combined 14-6 with a 3.73 ERA. So, what’s next? For MC, there’s a trip to Delta State next weekend. Buckle up.