The quest for an elusive national championship begins this weekend for Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Southern Miss, with both State and UM hosting NCAA regionals. The Magnolia State claims three national titles in baseball, but none in NCAA Division I. Fifty years ago, William Carey University won the NAIA World Series. Fifteen years ago, Delta State took the NCAA D-II crown. And in 2016, Jones County Junior College came home with the NJCAA D-II title. (Pearl River CC’s run ended on Tuesday.) The D-I schools have come close to winning it all in recent years. MSU lost in the best-of-3 final to UCLA in 2013; that’s the Bulldogs’ best showing in 10 CWS appearances. Ole Miss reached the semifinal round in 2014 in its first CWS trip since 1972. (USM made its first and only CWS appearance 10 years ago but didn’t stick around Omaha long). As a No. 6 national seed, the Bulldogs have the clearest path – if it can ever be called that — to Omaha this year. The Rebels, the No. 12 overall seed, likely would have to go on the road (to Arkansas) for their Super Regional. The Golden Eagles go to Baton Rouge as a regional 3-seed but are riding the wave of another C-USA Tournament championship. Baseball is a major source of pride for the state. It has become commonplace for the Big 3 to show up in preseason national polls, contend for conference titles and even get regional host bids. Just imagine what a national championship would do for the state’s growing reputation as a baseball hotbed.
Just when it looked like the Jones County Junior College program was starting to slip, Chris Kirtland’s Bobcats ripped off 17 wins in their first 18 games this year. They’ve jumped from unranked in preseason to No. 2 in the nation. They take a 20-2 overall record (5-1 MACJC) into a doubleheader today at 14th-ranked Hinds CC (15-4, 3-1). Kirtland, in his fourth season as JCJC head coach, has a fairly stunning 158-26 record. A longtime assistant under Christian Ostrander (now at Southern Miss), Kirtland won the 2016 NJCAA Division II national title in his first year in charge. In 2017, the Bobcats “slipped” to 46-4 and lost in the Region 23 Tournament. Last year, they “fell” to 38-11 and were upset by Hinds in the best-of-3 round of the state playoffs. But anyone expecting a down year in Ellisville in 2019 was misinformed. Led by an influx of talented freshmen, JCJC looks as formidable as ever. O’Neill Burgos, from Brookhaven, is hitting .398, Bailee Hendon of Vancleave .396. Versatile Blake Johnson, from Gulfport via Tulane, has seven homers and three saves. Lane Thomas is 5-0 with a 1.72 ERA and fellow frosh Coleton Ausburn 5-0, 3.10. Brandon Hale, a sophomore from Pontotoc, is batting .385 with four homers and a team-leading 29 runs. “Our team has gotten to a point where the expectations can motivate you,” Kirtland said before the season began. “The expectations can take your play to another level at times.”
When the first NJCAA Division II poll comes out on Tuesday, look for Jones County Junior College to jump in there somewhere. The Bobcats, unranked in the preseason poll, are 10-0 and beat top-ranked LSU-Eunice over the weekend. O’Neil Burgos is batting .385 with 10 RBIs and 12 runs for the Bobcats, and Lane Thomas is 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA. JCJC is the lone unbeaten team in the MACJC ranks; Holmes is 9-1 and Itawamba 8-1. … Mississippi State, now 10-1, moved to No. 8 from ninth in today’s Baseball America NCAA D-I poll, with Ole Miss (8-2) rising from 13th to 12th. State moved from 12th to seventh in the new NCBWA poll, while UM stayed at No. 10. … Going the other way is Southern Miss, which lost twice to Gonzaga over the weekend – a big lead in Game 3 was washed out — to fall to 4-5. … Mississippi Valley State scored three runs in the eighth and another in the 10th – on a passed ball — to win at Alabama State 12-11 on Saturday for its first win of the season. … Blue Mountain’s Eli Jackson, a sophomore from New Albany, threw a one-hit (nine-inning) shutout at Martin Methodist on Friday, fanning 11 in the 1-0 victory, BMC’s SSAC opener. The teams split a Saturday twinbill. … Mississippi College endured a rough weekend, losing three at West Florida to fall to 10-7, 3-3 Gulf South, and William Carey got swept away at NAIA No. 4 Faulkner to drop to 4-10, 0-3 SSAC. … In MLB, former Ole Miss star Chris Ellis’ bid to stick with Kansas City as a Rule 5 pick took another hit on Sunday when he yielded eight hits (two homers) and seven runs in two innings against Cleveland in Cactus League play. Ellis, also a former Mississippi Braves hurler, has a 20.25 ERA this spring. He was drafted out of St. Louis’ organization by Texas and then traded to the Royals. … UM alum Drew Pomeranz, now pitching for San Francisco, got knocked around (four runs in three innings) on Saturday by San Diego but did manage to retire Manny Machado on a pop-up in his first at-bat with the Padres. … Starkville native Julio Borbon, a onetime big leaguer who played college ball at Tennessee, announced his retirement over the weekend.
The focus in the MACJC today should be on Meridian – with a glance toward Clarksdale. At Meridian Community College’s Scaggs Field, Jones County Junior College, first in the league at 22-4, takes on the third-place Eagles (19-7) in a doubleheader. The NJCAA Division II No. 2 Bobcats, who’ve won 18 in a row (18!), need one win to claim the regular season title. At Coahoma CC’s Smith Sportsplex, second-place Pearl River (21-5) plays CCC (11-15) needing a sweep and help from Meridian to usurp Jones for the crown. Jones beat PRCC twice last week. The Jones-Meridian matchup is particularly intriguing. Luther Woullard is having a big year with the bat — .420, five homers, 45 RBIs — for the Bobcats, but it’s their pitching that truly commands your attention. The staff ERA is 2.99, and they average more than 10 strikeouts a game. Cooper Brune is 11-0 with a 2.78, and Will Freeman, who had the 18-punchout game last week, is 6-1, 3.20 with two saves. Meridian, ranked 20th in the D-II poll, has relied more on its offense, in particular Trace Jordan (.381, 15 homers, 60 RBIs) and Davis Bradshaw (.448, eight homers). Hunter Stanley (8-1, 4.73) is the ace of a staff that has a 4.69 collective ERA. … Northwest finished at 20-8 in the MACJC, winning 18 of its final 21 games. P.S. The start of the Gulf South Conference Tournament (see previous posts) in Cleveland was pushed back a day because of inclement weather. Both Mississippi College and Delta State are in action today.
Dominant may not be a strong enough word to describe Will Freeman’s performance on Tuesday in Ellisville. The Jones County Junior College sophomore struck out 18 batters in a seven-inning, 2-0 win over Pearl River Community College. The Alabama signee is 6-1 with a 3.32 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 57 innings. In the day’s second game, Jones’ Tyler Spring and Bryce Fagan combined on a three-hitter in a 4-1 win. This twinbill was a showdown for first place in the MACJC standings, which third-ranked Jones, 33-7 and winner of 14 straight, now leads at 18-4. Fourth-ranked PRCC is 17-5, 32-8. … It’s a midweek, neutral-site game that doesn’t count in the SEC standings, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone among the 8,500-plus in Pearl on Tuesday night who would dismiss the Governor’s Cup as just another game. Mississippi State’s dramatic walk-off win against Ole Miss was the Bulldogs’ third straight victory in the Cup series and eighth in the last nine games overall vs. the Rebels. Worth noting: Jake Mangum, the Jackson Prep product who had a two-run double for the Bulldogs and scored the game-winning run, is 22-for-51 (.431) against UM in his career. … Delta State, ranked as high as No. 3 in NCAA Division II, put up 20 runs in a win against Ouachita Baptist on Tuesday in Cleveland and is averaging 10 runs a game. How does DSU, 36-7, ever lose? … A hitter making his big league debut couldn’t pick a much better venue than Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park, a masher’s paradise. Ronald Acuna, the former Mississippi Braves star and Atlanta’s top prospect, is expected to be in the Braves’ lineup tonight at what some jokingly call “the Great American Small Park.” Acuna passed through Trustmark Park in Pearl last season en route to being named Baseball America’s minor league player of the year. The Reds’ scheduled starter is left-hander Brandon Finnegan. … Southern Miss alum Brian Dozier saw his 17-game hitting streak end as Minnesota suffered its fifth straight loss, 8-3, on Tuesday night against the New York Yankees. “Couldn’t care less about the streak,” Dozier told mlb.com. “The beautiful thing about it is, we play tomorrow.” Ole Miss alum Lance Lynn, seeking his first win as a Twin, will get the start today at Yankee Stadium. … They’ve set a date in Laurel. Opening day for the city’s National Urban Professional Baseball League team is May 25. Tickets are on sale. The team will be called the Josh Gibson All-Stars in honor of the Hall of Famer from the Negro Leagues and will play at Wooten Legion Field. Tryouts are ongoing. (Visit nupbl.com for more information.) A number of Mississippians are expected to be on the Laurel team roster.
Chris Stratton vs. Jarrod Dyson. Eighth inning, Chase Field, Phoenix. San Francisco up 2-0 on Arizona with a runner on. A Mississippi baseball aficionado moment. Dyson, the McComb native and Southwest Mississippi Community College product, won the battle, lashing an RBI triple to center field, chasing Stratton from the game. But the Tupelo native and ex-Mississippi State star ultimately won the war. Though the Giants’ bullpen would later blow the save, the team won 4-3 in 10 innings Wednesday night on a Brandon Belt bomb. Stratton was fairly brilliant in his second straight quality start. He yielded just five hits, the one run, walked none and struck out eight. He trimmed his ERA to 2.22 over four 2018 starts (and 3.29 in 24 career games). The lanky right-hander appears to have secured a spot in the San Francisco rotation, which is currently missing three injured members. “He’s one of our guys,” manager Bruce Bochy told mlb.com. Meanwhile, the triple was a big knock for Dyson, who is batting just .200 in 12 games with his new team. P.S. Also worth noting from Wednesday: In Syracuse, N.Y., Ole Miss alum David Goforth pitched two perfect innings as part of a four-man combo no-hitter for the Chiefs against Indianapolis. Goforth has 1.17 ERA in four games for Washington’s Triple-A affiliate. … In Perkinston, No. 5 Jones County Junior College beat Mississippi Gulf Coast CC 4-2 and 14-9 to extend its win streak to 10 games. Trace Henry had a go-ahead hit in the ninth of Game 1 and Robbie Woody and Brandon Hale drove in three runs apiece in the second game for the Bobcats (29-7, 14-4 MACJC). First-place Pearl River (29-7, 15-3) swept Hinds on Wednesday to maintain a one-game lead.
Jones County Junior College, ranked No. 1 in preseason and still there after a 13-1 start, veered off course in mid-March, losing six times in a 12-game stretch. The team’s ranking in the NJCAA Division II poll tumbled to 12th on April 3. Well, don’t look now, but it seems the Bobcats have rediscovered their way. Jones has won six straight games in MACJC play to climb into second place in the league at 12-4, a notch behind Pearl River CC (12-2). The Bobcats, 25-7 heading into a twinbill at Baton Rouge CC today, put on an impressive showing at Wesson on Tuesday, blasting Copiah-Lincoln 12-2 and 18-6. Luther Woullard, a sophomore from d’Iberville who has been the club’s big bat, had eight hits in the two games and knocked in seven runs in Game 2 alone. He is batting a robust .448 with 17 doubles, five home runs, 40 RBIs and 22 steals. Trace Henry also has been a key offensive player, with a .392 average and 28 steals. Cooper Brune (7-0, 2.37 ERA), Will Freeman (5-1, two saves, 4.19) and Tyler Spring (5-1, 1.89) front coach Chris Kirtland’s pitching staff, which has a 3.11 ERA. JCJC’s next conference games are Wednesday at Mississippi Gulf Coast, another nationally ranked team that features the nation’s top homer and RBI man, Brandon Parker (18 and 63). A potential showdown with Pearl River, currently ranked No. 6, looms on April 24.
Jones County Junior College slipped out of the top spot in the new NJCAA Division II poll, replaced by LSU-Eunice, which beat the Bobcats 3-2 last week. Jones is 13-3. Rising on the chart was East Central CC, up to No. 5 from 10th in the previous poll. The 11-1 Warriors have won seven straight. Wyatt Ball has led the charge, batting .500 with two homers, 14 RBIs and 14 runs. George Farid is hitting .441, and Southern Miss signee Jacob Edwards is at .390 with 16 RBIs. On the bump, Delta State-bound Payton Griffin is 2-0 with a 2.93 ERA, and Kolby Crowley has a 0.84 in six appearances. Four other MACJC schools are ranked, though each slipped a bit from last week. Itawamba (12-2) is eighth, Hinds (11-2) 13th, Gulf Coast (16-2) 16th and Pearl River (9-3) 19th. Holmes, at 11-2, isn’t in the Top 20, nor is Copiah-Lincoln (10-2). Only two of the 15 teams in the league are under .500. Conference play, which starts this weekend, will sort a lot of this out.
He hit one home run last season at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and says he never hit one in high school. But there sits Dylan Menhennett, leading all NJCAA Division II batters with five homers. “I’ve been working out non-stop, just getting better,” he said in a release by the school. “I’ve been swinging every night, coming up here (to Farris Field) and getting extra work.” The third baseman from Biloxi is 11-for-18 with 12 RBIs for the undefeated Bulldogs, who have pounded their opponents 74-12. Gulf Coast is among three MACJC teams off to a 6-0 start. … Jones County JC, preseason No. 1 in the NJCAA poll, is also 6-0 and has outscored its opposition 51-17. Luke Hudson, one of several freshmen in the Bobcats lineup, is 9-for-16 with two homers and seven RBIs. … Itawamba CC moved to 6-0 with a sweep of Columbia State on Tuesday, notching career wins No. 501 and 502 for longtime coach Rick Collier. The former Delta State player has one Juco World Series appearance, two region titles and two state titles on his ICC resume. … East Central CC is 4-0 after sweeping Bevill State on Tuesday. The Warriors won their first two games last weekend on walk-off hits by Kenneth Scott and Hunter Harper. Harper homered on Tuesday. … Hinds CC, the defending Region 23 champion, is 5-1 after rolling over Bishop State 13-2 and 9-4 on Tuesday.
A little history will be made today. Mississippi University for Women is slated for its inaugural baseball game at the University of Dallas. The Owls, coached by Matt Wolfenbarger, have a 36-player roster comprised mostly of freshmen with a few junior college transfers sprinkled in. MUW, which has applied for NCAA Division III membership, will play four games at Dallas, a D-III school in the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference, then return for a seven-game homestand at Columbus High starting Feb. 16. … Belhaven University also opens today at Centenary in Shreveport, La. This will be the 18th season at BU for Hill Denson, the former Southern Miss coach who was formally inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame last month. The Blazers, still in transition to Division III status, went 26-14 in 2017. They had two players make the American Southwest Conference preseason watch list: Will Costinett (.311, 11 homers in 2017) and Austin Douglas (3-1, 3.86 ERA). … Incidentally, Belhaven will host MUW at Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson on April 11. P.S. Jones County Junior College, ranked No. 1 in the NJCAA’s Division II preseason poll and No. 2 by Collegiate Baseball, opens the season on Saturday against Southwest Tennessee CC in Ellisville.