Millsaps College and Belhaven University, NCAA Division III programs in bounce-back mode, are slated to open the 2020 season today. The Majors, 10-33 in 2019, are hosting LeTourneau at Twenty Field on their Jackson campus, while the Blazers, 11-29 in Hill Denson’s final season as coach, play a pair of games (Randolph-Macon and Huntingdon) in a tournament in Montgomery, Ala. For BU, today’s games mark the debut of coach Kyle Palmer, previously director of baseball operations at California Baptist and an assistant at East Texas Baptist prior to that. The Blazers’ top player is Justin Milam, a former Madison Central and Northwest Mississippi Community College standout who hit .296 with five homers and 27 RBIs in 2019. At Millsaps, Jim Page enters his 32nd season with a 774-498-3 record but coming off what he calls “the toughest year we’ve ever had.” The bar for success is high at Millsaps, which has made eight D-III regional appearances under Page and in 2013 went to the College World Series. The Majors’ undoing in 2019 was a pitching staff that posted a 7.48 ERA, but Page said in a school-produced video that he is encouraged by what he saw in fall workouts. He wants his pitchers to throw strikes and trust the defense to make plays. “It’s going to come down to that,” he said. Lefty Taylor Sullivan was a bright spot in 2019, going 3-0 with a 4.11 ERA. With Mason Little (.331) on the shelf with an injury, the top returning hitter is Jimmy Johnstone, who batted .304.
“Play ball” time arrives for NCAA Division III schools Belhaven University and Millsaps College this weekend, with the Blazers set to open on Friday at Smith-Wills Stadium and the Majors on Saturday at Twenty Field as part of a round-robin tournament. Belhaven coach Hill Denson has announced that this will be the final season of his long and heralded career. The swan song begins against LeTourneau, a D-III school from Texas. The Blazers, 12-27 in 2018, a rare losing season for Denson, were pegged to finish 11th in the 12-team American Southwest Conference. The team had two players get recognition on the league’s preseason Watch List: second baseman Evan Moore, who hit .297 with 23 runs and 14 steals as a freshman, and right-hander David Hall, who posted a 3-6 record and 4.71 ERA last year. Pitching was a 2018 sore spot for BU, which put up a 6.53 staff ERA. Millsaps will play LeTourneau on Saturday, launching coach Jim Page’s 31st year with the purple and white. He topped 750 career wins in 2018 as the Majors went 25-19. The team returns outfielder Jimmy Johnstone, a .361 hitter and second-team All-Southern Athletic Association pick in 2018; outfielder Brennan Ducote, who batted .374 with four homers and 33 RBIs; and right-hander Conner Haynes, 4-1, 3.22 ERA. … Belhaven and Millsaps will play the first of three Maloney Trophy Series games on March 6 at Smith-Wills.
With nine wins in its first 12 games and three straight blowout victories, Millsaps College heads into its first conference series of the year riding a wave of positivity. The Majors, who host Rhodes in Southern Athletic Association play at Twenty Field this weekend, have scored at least 11 runs in their last three games, including an 11-2 win against local rival Belhaven University on Tuesday. Brennan Ducote, a junior from Lafayette, La., has been the main masher, with a .500 average, two homers, 14 RBIs and 11 runs. He hit .279 with one homer last year. Jimmy Johnstone is batting .429 and former Northwest Rankin High star Chase Callaway .386 for the Majors, hitting .314 as a team. Connor Haynes is 3-0 with a 0.73 ERA on the bump. The Majors went 19-23 in 2017 after a 20-21 finish the year before, uncharacteristic campaigns for an NCAA Division III program that has won 64 percent of its games since Jim Page became the coach in 1989.
Only 14 at-large bids to the NCAA Division III Tournament were handed out. Millsaps got one. The Majors (28-12) will play in the West Regional, which starts Wednesday at Tyler, Texas. The regional features four conference champions, including host UT-Tyler, 34-10 out of the American Southwest. The Majors’ chances of getting a regional bid appeared slim when they were eliminated at home by Rhodes in the tournament phase of the Southern Athletic Association postseason. Rhodes and SAA regular season champ Birmingham-Southern also made the 56-team NCAA field. Under longtime coach Jim Page, Millsaps has made several regional appearances and reached the D-III College World Series in 2013. League player of the year Keith Shumaker leads the current club, hitting .395 and posting an 8-2, 2.39 pitching ledger. Isaac Glenn also had a huge year, batting .446 with four homers and 44 RBIs, and William Chenoweth hit .366 with five bombs. Smokey Ethridge (5-4, 2.35) is the Majors’ No. 2 starter. Another stat worth knowing: Millsaps is 6-6 away from home this season.