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.
Keep an eye on William Carey University, which jumped 11 spots in the NAIA poll last week and then validated the ranking by taking a series at Middle Georgia State, another Top 25 team. The 12th-ranked Crusaders crushed their hosts 13-3 in Friday’s series opener at Cochran, Ga., then bounced back from a tough loss in Game 1 of Saturday’s twinbill to take the rubber match 5-4. Tyler Odom and Tyler Graves hit homers for the Crusaders (17-5, 5-1 SSAC) in that game, Braden Smith notched his fourth win with six strong innings and Lane Fazende picked up the save. Carey, which has played only seven home games, in part because of the January tornado damage on campus, is batting .305 as a team with 189 runs. Graves, from Petal, leads the way with a .417 average and 35 RBIs. Tyler James is hitting .364 with 30 runs and 20 steals, McComb’s Adrian Brown .361 with four homers, 30 runs and 16 steals and Gulfport’s James Land .342 with six bombs. Fazende, a Picayune product, has three wins, two saves and a 0.76 ERA out of the bullpen, while Brookhaven’s Braden Smith (4-1, 4.91), Devin Smith (4-0, 4.99) and Cole Edgens (3-0, 2.68) have been solid starters. The Southern States Athletic Conference is one of the best NAIA leagues in the country. It has four teams currently ranked, including No. 1 Faulkner (23-3), which finished as national runner-up in 2016. Carey and Faulkner will meet in late April. … Blue Mountain is 14-10 and 2-4 in SSAC, having taken a series from Martin Methodist in the first games at the new BMC Sportsplex. The Toppers won the rubber game on Saturday 1-0, getting stellar pitching from Josh Letson and Jonas White and a walk-off hit from Blake Key in the ninth inning.
If there is one opposing player Delta State wants to keep reined in today in Tampa, Fla., it would be John Silviano. The Lynn University star enters the NCAA Division II South Region contest with 30 home runs and 74 RBIs. The sophomore catcher was the Sunshine State Conference player of the year. Lynn (33-20 and seeded fifth in the seven-team regional) had two other all-conference players, both second-teamers: Ryan Donovan (.343, 12 homers) and John Borup (.339). DSU (38-15 and seeded fourth) may have a little more star power: Gulf South Conference pitcher of the year Tre Hobbs and Will Robertson, a Ferriss Trophy finalist who is batting .426 with 71 RBIs, lead a pack of five Statesmen who earned All-GSC honors. For what it’s worth, the Statesmen also have an edge in history, with 30 NCAA regional appearances, 61 all-time wins and 11 titles. Lynn has six regional appearances, including three straight. Should DSU beat Lynn, next up is a game on Friday against top-seeded, No. 2-ranked and defending D-II national champ Tampa. P.S. William Carey’s Adrian Brown didn’t make the cut for Ferriss Trophy finalist, but he kept the Crusaders’ season alive with a ninth-inning home run that beat College of Idaho in an NAIA regional on Wednesday. Brown, son of the former major league outfielder of the same name, has had a heck of a year: .389, five homers, 42 RBIs, 51 runs and 28 steals in 58 games. He’s likely to get drafted. Carey plays top-seeded Westmont (Calif.) in an elimination game today in Santa Barbara, Calif.