Give J.T. Wright some credit for good timing. The senior DH, who did not hit a home run during the regular season, hit a clutch one in the ninth inning today that boosted William Carey to a 3-2 win against Bethel in the first game of the Southern States Athletic Conference Tournament at Montgomery, Ala. Wright’s homer broke a 2-2 tie and Dylan Spiers got a game-ending double play in the bottom of the ninth for the fourth-seeded Crusaders (33-21). Starter Hunter Speer worked eight strong innings and was the winning pitcher. Christian Smith, named first-team All-SSAC on Tuesday after hitting .337 with 49 steals, went 2-for-3 and scored a run for Carey, which already has earned an invitation to the NAIA national tournament. The Crusaders, who reached the NAIA World Series last year, will host an Opening Round tournament starting May 14. In today’s second game at Montgomery, Blue Mountain (28-21), the sixth seed, faced 3-seed Middle Georgia State. No. 1-ranked Faulkner is the tourney’s top seed. … BMC’s Caleb Leach also was named first-team All-SSAC. He batted .382 this season.
Blue Mountain and William Carey are creating a nice little rivalry in NAIA land. They’ll play the rubber game of a three-game Southern States Athletic Conference series today at Wheeler Field in Hattiesburg as they jockey for seeding positions in the upcoming league tournament. Carey won Game 1 8-2 on Friday behind the pitching of Hunter Speer (8-2), who threw a seven-inning three-hitter, and three RBIs from RBI leader David Pementel, who has 43. BMC bounced back with a 5-1 win in Game 2 as Josh Letson (6-4), Mason Woolridge and David Torres combined on a six-hitter over nine. Five different Toppers drove in a run. Both teams are trying to get their house in order as the regular season wanes. Carey (now 29-18, 13-7 SSAC) entered the series having dropped seven of 10 games in April; its ranking in the NAIA poll sank to No. 19 this week. BMC (now 26-18, 9-11) came in with a three-game win streak but had dropped five in a row prior to that. The SSAC Tournament is just around the corner, slated for May 2-5 at Montgomery, Ala., and it’s a bear. Four of the nine teams in the league were nationally ranked this week, including No. 1 Faulkner. Bobby Halford’s Crusaders marched all the way to the NAIA World Series in 2017 and had high hopes again entering 2018. They began the year ranked sixth by Collegiate Baseball. BMC, still a young program under Curt Fowler, made the league tournament for the first time last season.
After what its coach called “a season for the ages” in 2017, Blue Mountain College opens the 2018 campaign on Friday with a trip to LSU-Shreveport. BMC, under coach Curt Fowler, went 32-25 last year and qualified for the Southern States Athletic Conference Tournament for the first time in its four years in the NAIA league. The Toppers started their program in 2011. Two second-team All-SSAC performers are back: right-hander Dustin Allen (8-4, 3.55 ERA) and top hitter Caleb Leach (.362, six homers, 38 RBIs). Miciah Heard, a .352 hitter who swiped 33 bases, also returns. After Friday’s doubleheader, BMC will play LSU-S again on Saturday. LSU-S is a perennial NAIA postseason contender and is coming off a 39-21 season. P.S. Ole Miss (16), Southern Miss (21) and Mississippi State (23) are ranked in Baseball America’s preseason Top 25, which was released earlier this week. The NCAA Division I start date is Feb. 16, with USM and State clashing in Hattiesburg that day.
They had the best record in the league. They put up wow-inducing numbers, both with their bats and their arms. They’re the top seed in this week’s tournament and, even though wild and crazy things can happen in double-elimination play, it’d be foolish to bet against them. So, who are we talking about? Could be Jackson State, Delta State or Jones County Junior College. The description fits all three. JSU, which went 20-4 in the SWAC East and 36-15-1 overall, starts conference tournament play Wednesday against Southern University, the fourth-place team from the West, at Barrow Stadium in New Orleans. The Tigers hit .322 as a team with 421 runs and 132 steals; they posted a 3.46 ERA, a .252 batting average against and seven complete games. Tigers to watch: Lamar Briggs (.379), Jesus Santana (nine homers, 62 RBIs), Bryce Brown (.368, 25 steals), C.J. Newsome (50 runs), Miguel Yrigoyen (nine wins, 2.93), Jose Tirado (seven saves). Delta State, regular season and tournament champion in the Gulf South Conference, will start NCAA Division II South Region play on Friday at Ferriss Field in Cleveland. It’s a strong, seven-team field, including defending national champ Nova Southeastern and GSC powers West Alabama and Valdosta State. But DSU (41-11) looks up to the task. The Statesmen are hitting .320 with 432 runs and 60 homers; the staff ERA is 4.57 (fifth in the hitter-heavy GSC) with five shutouts and just 25 homers allowed. Statesmen to watch: Ferriss Trophy finalist Zack Shannon (.451, 18 homers, 84 RBIs, 60 runs), Clay Casey (.358, 17 homers), Seth Birdsong (9-1, 2.82), Zach Osbon (six saves, six wins, 1.35). And then there’s Jones County JC, ranked No. 1 in the country in NJCAA D-II. The Bobcats (44-2) open Region 23 Tournament play on Wednesday against Pearl River at Community Bank Park in Ellisville. JCJC batters hit .370 with 437 runs and 44 homers; its pitchers had a 2.64 ERA with 9.3 K’s per game. Bobcats to watch: Erick Hoard (.417, 12 homers, 53 RBIs), Shelton Wallace (.452, 62 RBIs), Fred Franklin (40 steals), Ben Stiglets (11-0, 1.60), Logan Robbins (11-0, 2.34, 83 K’s in 61 2/3 innings). P.S. William Carey won its opener in the NAIA Opening Round tournament and plays top-seeded Southeastern (Fla.) University today at Wheeler Field in Hattiesburg. Carey knocked off Texas Wesleyan 4-3 with a four-run ninth sparked by big hits from Tyler Odom and Cody Christian.
James Land of William Carey University is one of the top home run hitters in NAIA. Forgive Texas Wesleyan if it’s not particularly impressed. The first hurdle for Carey in the NAIA Opening Round tournament in Hattiesburg is Texas Wesleyan, a team that digs the long ball. Texas Wesleyan has 62 homers on the year, equaling the school record. Luis Roman leads with 15, and Kiki Menendez, a .409 hitter, has 11. Two others have nine. Land has 17 homers for Carey; the rest of the team 20. The 20th-ranked Crusaders (38-17) will play the No. 12 Rams (45-13) on Monday at Wheeler Field. The top seed in the five-team regional is Southeastern University of Florida, which is 48-9 and ranked ninth. The Fire is led by Luis Diaz (.406, nine homers, 12 triples) and John Jaeger (10 saves, 1.62 ERA). Lyon College of Arkansas (34-22) and LSU-Alexandria (33-22) play in the tourney opener on Monday, with the winner getting Southeastern in the third game of the day. The winner of this regional event advances to the NAIA World Series, May 26-June 2 in Lewiston, Idaho. Carey won an NAIA championship in 1969, one of only two national titles by Mississippi four-year schools.
It’s easy to get caught up in the offensive numbers on the William Carey University stat sheet. After all, there’s James Land batting .383 with 14 home runs and 49 RBIs. Tyler Graves is at .347 with a team-leading 55 RBIs. Adrian Brown is hitting .333 with 49 runs. But don’t overlook what right-handed reliever Lane Fazende has done for this team, which is 31-15 and 17-7 in the SSAC after a big series win at NAIA No. 2 Faulkner over the weekend. Fazende, a senior from Picayune, threw four scoreless innings to get the win in the opener of the series on Friday, then got the last out for a save in the first game of Saturday’s twinbill. Fazende has made 23 appearances for No. 23 Carey and worked 52 innings. He is 5-4 with six saves and a 2.25 ERA. He has 47 strikeouts. Yes, Carey’s hitters played a role in the two wins. Land and Tyler James homered in the opener, a 4-3 victory, and Brown went 2-for-3 with two doubles and two runs in Saturday’s 3-2 win. Starter Cole Edgens, now 7-0, got the victory for the Crusaders. Faulkner won the series finale. Carey is done with its SSAC schedule and now awaits its seeding in the conference tournament, set for May 3-6 at Montgomery, Ala. The Crusaders, currently third, could still win the regular season title with some help.
Only one small college player has won the Ferriss Trophy over its 13 years: Belhaven University’s Craig Westcott in 2009. The 2017 coronation is a long ways off, but there are a couple of NAIA players whose hitting exploits this season bear notice. James Land, a senior first baseman at William Carey, belted three home runs at Mississippi College on Tuesday, running his season total to 11. He leads the Southern States Athletic Conference in slugging at .807 and ranks near the top in homers, batting average (.404) and RBIs (38). Land, a former Harrison Central and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College star, was named the SSAC’s player of the week last week (after batting .591 with 11 RBIs in five games). The reigning SSAC player of the week is Caleb Leach of Blue Mountain. A junior infielder/outfielder from Florida, Leach batted .600 with a pair of homers, five RBIs and eight runs last week and is at .397, five homers and 27 RBIs for the year. He leads the Toppers in slugging (.612) and runs (33). It should help the cases for Land and Leach that both Carey and BMC are having strong years. The nationally ranked Crusaders are 23-9, 9-3 SSAC, and the Toppers are 23-15, 6-6, easily the best start in their short history.