On the eve of the MACJC postseason, there are lots of numbers to digest. Five state junior colleges are ranked in the new NJCAA Division II Top 20, and all of them reached the postseason. No. 4 Itawamba Community College won the regular season title and the right to host the Region 23 Tournament, where top-ranked LSU-Eunice also has an automatic berth. The next eight teams in the MACJC standings face off in best-of-3 series this week to determine four more region tourney participants. Fifth-ranked Jones College (aka Jones County JC), which took second in the league, hosts Hinds; No. 9 Northwest hosts Northeast; No. 6 Pearl River hosts East Central; and No. 16 Meridian hosts Gulf Coast. … LSU-E, which leads the nation in staff ERA (2.56) and bats .340 as a team, could be a bear in the double-elimination region tourney. … Itawamba ranks fifth in the nation in ERA (3.43), third in fielding (.966) and is riding an 11-game winning streak. … The last team to beat ICC was Northwest, in Fulton back on April 16. … Keep an eye on PRCC, which ranks third in the nation in home runs, led by Dexter Jordan’s 15. … Northeast’s Drew Smith led the state in batting at .440 and also hit 13 homers. … Jones is the best hitting team in the state at .330. … Meridian enters on a five-game win streak. … Hinds, ranked ninth at 21-5 in early April, went 4-13 down the stretch and finished ninth in the league.
Before the dust gets kicked up again in the MACJC, here’s how the teams stack up with roughly two weeks left in the regular season: Fourth-ranked Itawamba Community College (14-4) and No. 11 Northwest Mississippi (15-5), after their split on Tuesday, remain in a virtual tie for first in the standings. No. 6 Pearl River and No. 9 Jones County, both on extended winning streaks, are third at 12-6. Gulf Coast (11-7) and East Central (12-8) are in a virtual tie for fifth, and No. 10 Meridian and 14th-ranked Hinds are knotted in seventh at 10-7. Copiah-Lincoln sits at 9-9. Yes, it’s going to be a mad scramble to the finish and on into the playoffs. The big doubleheader this weekend is Saturday’s matchup of Northwest and Meridian in the Queen City. … Pitching – good pitching — has been a main storyline this season. MACJC schools occupy the Nos. 7 to 11 spots in the NJCAA Division II team stats for ERA. Itawamba, featuring ace Houston Harding, has a 3.28, Northwest a 3.29 and Pearl River a 3.34. Meridian’s Braden Forsyth, who has worked as a starter and reliever, has a 1.15, while Harding, 8-0 as a starter, is at 1.72. PRCC’s Miles Smith has 69 strikeouts, eighth in the nation. Jones County leads state schools in batting with a .337 average, led by Brandon Hale at .398. Pearl River has mashed 59 homers, second-most in the country. Dexter Jordan has 10, and Wiley Cleland and Kasey Donaldson nine apiece. Meridian’s Kace Garner leads the state with 12 bombs, and Gulf Coast’s Brandon Parker has 10.
Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College sits alone at the top of the MACJC standings after completing a pair of sweeps last week and surely will break into the NJCAA Division II poll this week. The surging Bulldogs improved to 9-1 in the league by rolling past Copiah-Lincoln and Mississippi Delta and are 17-5 overall. Freshman Dee Hawthorne has swung a hot bat for Gulf Coast. After a big day against Delta on Saturday, including a grand slam, he is batting .500 with five homers and 22 RBIs. The league standings got a little shaken up after some showdowns last week, and national poll positions will be affected. “That’s MACJC baseball. It’s a battle and a grind,” Pearl River coach Michael Avalon said. No. 2 Jones County stumbled, splitting a twinbill with No. 14 Hinds before being swept by 10th-ranked Itawamba. ICC, 21-4 and second in the league at 8-2, got a grand slam from Kyle Crigger and stellar pitching from Houston Harding, Austin King and Daniel Rowland in Saturday’s sweep of Jones. No. 5 Pearl River and No. 9 Meridian battled to a split on Saturday, with PRCC winning the opener 20-18 behind Matt Taylor’s six RBIs and MCC taking the nightcap 5-4 thanks to a timely homer by Kace Garner and clutch pitching from Braden Forsyth. MCC is 6-2 in the league, as is Hinds. PRCC is 5-3, a notch behind No. 18 Northwest (7-3) and in a virtual tie with Jones (6-4). Northwest took twinbills from East and Southwest last week, notching coach Mark Carson’s 400th win in the process. The aptly named Hammer Franks had five hits and four RBIs in the Southwest games. Not to be overlooked: East’s Jaxen Forrester threw a no-hitter against East Central on Friday, striking out nine and walking two over seven innings in a 10-1 victory, which was the Lions’ first league win of the year.
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.”
Keep an eye on Fulton on Saturday, and keep the other on Perkinston. Those are the hottest spots in MACJC play. Fourth-ranked Pearl River Community (17-2, 4-0 in the league) visits No. 13 Itawamba CC (16-3, 3-1) for a doubleheader, and Holmes CC (17-3, 2-2) travels to Mississippi Gulf Coast CC (12-4, 4-0) for a battle of Bulldogs teams that aren’t ranked but could be next week. Pearl River, which got one first-place vote in the latest NJCAA Division II poll, is coming off a monster performance against Copiah-Lincoln on Tuesday. Led by Dexter Jordan, among others, the Wildcats put up eight homers and 29 runs in a twinbill sweep. In one of Saturday’s games, PRCC is likely to face ICC ace Houston Harding, a sophomore lefty who is 5-0 with a 0.98 ERA. Holmes is coming off a Tuesday split against No. 2-ranked Jones County; in their win, the Goodman Bulldogs got a three-hit shutout from Nate Oswalt (apparently no relation to Holmes alum and ex-big leaguer Roy). They’ll run into a Gulf Coast club that has won 11 in a row. Perkinston’s Bulldogs feature reigning D-II player of the year Brandon Parker, who’s batting .347 with five homers and has yet to really heat up. (For the record, Meridian’s Kace Garner leads the state with eight homers.)
League play, the main event for the state’s junior colleges, starts next Saturday. If the opening acts are any indication, we’re in for a wild ride. Jones County Junior College, which jumped into the NJCAA Division II poll at No. 4 last week after upsetting No. 1 LSU-Eunice, is 13-1. So is Holmes, which isn’t even ranked. Fifth-ranked Pearl River is 12-2 after beating LSU-Eunice 4-3 in 11 innings last Friday, getting a clutch hit from Dexter Jordan and clutch relief pitching from Shemar Page. “It was as good of a regular season game as I’ve ever been a part of,” Wildcats coach Michael Avalon said in a school release. Seventh-ranked Meridian is 8-2 with seven straight wins. No. 15 Itawamba is 11-2, and 20th-ranked Northwest is 11-3. Unranked Hinds, which swept Baton Rouge and Dakota State 15-0 and 12-0 over the weekend, is 10-3 with a seven-game streak. Copiah-Lincoln is 7-2 and Coahoma 12-4. Nothing any of those schools did over the weekend can quite compare, however, to what went down in Scooba on Friday between two MACJC schools with losing records. East Mississippi, under new coach Brett Kimbrel, won an 18-17 game that featured 34 hits and 21 walks before East Central bounced back to take Game 2 15-3 in five innings by recording 13 of the 15 outs via strikeout. Whew. In the opener of the non-conference twinbill, Austin Beech got the walk-off hit in the ninth for East (3-7), which also made use of home runs by Dillon Morgan (two), Tyler Miller and Phillip Martin. Ryan Cupit drove in four runs and Javian Stone fanned 10 batters in four innings to spark ECCC (5-7) in the second game. … ICC’s Houston Harding (4-0, 0.96 ERA) and Jones’ Lane Thomas (4-0, 1.23) rank second among the national leaders in wins, tied with 10 others.
Pearl River Community College is off to a hot start – eight wins in nine games – and one of the hitters providing the fuel is Wiley Cleland. The former Columbia Academy star has four home runs and 15 RBIs – and is among quite a number of MACJC players showing up on the lists of national leaders. Cleland is tied for second in NJCAA Division II in homers and tied for 14th in RBIs. Wildcats teammate Dexter Jordan, from Hattiesburg, has three homers, tied for fifth with a group that also includes Blake Johnson (Gulfport) of Jones County JC and Ben Van Cleve (Indianola) of Northwest. Mississippi Delta’s Ty Richie, from Brandon and Northwest Rankin, has 12 steals, tied for fifth nationally. Cole Johnson of Holmes and Oak Grove alum Mack Pickering of Meridian are hitting .556, tied for eighth in the nation. Johnson has nine runs and five RBIs in six games. Tyler Lantz of MCC has pitched only 4 1/3 innings but has 10 strikeouts, a rate of 20.77 per nine that ranks third nationally. Northwest CC’s Jackson Smith, a Central Hinds product, has three saves, tied for second in D-II, plus a win for the 7-1 Rangers. P.S. Hinds and Southwest put up video game numbers on Wednesday, with both teams scoring 28 runs in doubleheader sweeps. The Eagles blew away Arkansas Baptist, while Southwest humbled Nunez. … New East Mississippi coach Brett Kimbrel is slated for his home debut on Friday, when Wallace State-Hanceville visits Scooba. The Lions won two of eight road games to start the season.
The bull’s-eye will be on Meridian Community College at the start of the juco season in Mississippi. The Eagles, who open Monday against Spring Hill JV in Mobile, are ranked No. 4 in the nation by the NJCAA and No. 9 by Collegiate Baseball. Dillon Sudduth’s Eagles finished 39-13 in 2018 and reached the Division II Region 23 Tournament final. Gone from that club are Milton Smith Jr., Davis Bradshaw and Trace Jordan, but a strong pitching staff led by David Dunn and Luke Wallner (both 6-game winners in 2018) fuels the cause for optimism this year. Houston Parker and Keegan Westbrook are among a small group of returning position players. … Defending state champion Pearl River CC, which opens Sunday at home against nationally ranked Jefferson College, is ranked eighth by the NJCAA and 13th by CB. PRCC features a pair of aces: Shemar Page, a 10-game winner in 2018, and Miles Smith, who won six times. Former Wildcats star Braxton Lee, who made his big league debut last spring, will throw out the ceremonial first pitch for PRCC’s opener. … Mississippi Gulf Coast CC is ranked 14th by the NJCAA. “Somebody thinks we’re pretty good, so we’ve got a lot to live up to,” Bulldogs coach Rodney Batts said in a school release. It helps that his team returns slugger Brandon Parker, the NJCAA D-II player of the year in 2018. Gulf Coast launches on Saturday at home against Jefferson College. … Jones County JC, ranked 15th in the Collegiate Baseball poll, hosts Coastal Alabama-East on Tuesday. The Bobcats’ sparkplug is Trace Henry, a .399 hitter who stole 39 bases and scored 60 runs in 2018. … Itawamba CC, which was ranked second in the nation early in 2018, isn’t currently ranked but shouldn’t be overlooked. The Indians return lefty Houston Harding, a nine-game winner and a Mississippi State signee, and top slugger LaBryant Siddell, who hit .348 with six homers. … Another player to watch in the MACJC is Southwest CC’s Michael Buck, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound sophomore who hit .387 with six homers last year. He is a Delta State signee.
Seven state schools, including the Big 3 NCAA Division I schools, are ranked in Collegiate Baseball Magazine’s preseason polls, which came out this week. There might be a tendency to take such news for granted – aren’t there a bunch of Mississippi schools ranked every year? – but we really should not do that. Let’s put this in perspective. Mississippi ranks among the least populous states – 34th in 2018, according to World Atlas – and is smaller, population-wise, than any other Deep South state. It produces good players: 16 Mississippi high school products appeared in big league games in 2018. Per capita, that figure is among the best in the nation. But there isn’t a large volume of talent. And there are 30 senior and junior colleges playing baseball in the state. College coaches here can’t just roll out the balls and bats and win games. Over the years, they’ve mined and refined the state’s talent to build winning programs and grow tremendous fan support. They’ve developed tradition and created brands that are attractive to out-of-state talent. Twenty-two state college alumni, including 11 who played high school ball in other states, appeared in big league games in 2018. Each of the state’s Big 3 had a player in the World Series this year: Mitch Moreland (Mississippi State) and Drew Pomeranz (Ole Miss) with Boston and Brian Dozier (Southern Miss) with the Los Angeles Dodgers. That’s pretty impressive stuff for what Willie Morris used to call “poor old whupped-down Mis’ippi.” So when these polls come out, sprinkled with Mississippi schools, don’t just shrug. Smile and be proud. … Collegiate Baseball pegged Ole Miss, SEC Tournament champ in 2018, at No. 11 in NCAA Division I. Mississippi State, which went to the College World Series last summer, is No. 27 and Southern Miss, 2018 C-USA champion, is No. 30. Delta State, coming off yet another NCAA regional appearance, is No. 10 in Division II, while Mississippi College, the Gulf South Conference Tournament champ in 2018, got votes in the D-II poll. Meridian Community College, runner-up in the Region 23 Tournament last season, is No. 9 in the NJCAA D-II poll, with defending state champion Pearl River checking in at 13th and Jones County 15th. … MSU’s Jake Mangum and USM’s Matt Wallner made CB’s first-team All-America list, while UM’s Parker Caracci and Ryan Olenek were second- and third-team picks.
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.