10 Jan

coming attraction

Feb. 10. That’s a date worth circling. Jones County Junior College, ranked No. 2 in Collegiate Baseball’s NJCAA Division II poll, will make its 2018 debut on that date against Southwest Tennessee CC in Ellisville. It’s truly a testament to the tradition established by the Bobcats – the 2016 national champs – that they are so highly ranked. The 2018 team will look very different from the 2017 version, which started the year ranked No. 1, went 46-4, won the state championship and saw its brilliant season end in heartbreaking fashion at home in the Region 23 Tournament. (Hinds CC won the region title and advanced to the juco World Series.) Gone from the Bobcats roster are hitting stalwarts Tanner Huddleston, Erick Hoard, Fred Franklin and Shelton Wallace and ace starters Ben Stiglets, Mason Strickland and Logan Robbins. Luther Woullard (.326, six homers), a New Orleans signee, is the top returning hitter, and Alabama-bound Will Freeman (1.80 ERA, five saves) is hailed by coach Chris Kirtland as the MACJC’s “most dominant” pitcher. Freshmen will play significant roles. Ones to watch: outfielders Luke McKenzie (Columbia Academy) and Trace Henry (Mooreville) and right-hander Payton Harris (Oak Grove). While you’re circling dates, go ahead and do May 15. That’s the first day of the Region 23 Tournament. It’s a good bet that JCJC will be in it.

21 May

hinds is rolling — again

Hinds Community College, which has had a knack for getting on a roll this season, is on another. This latest one will carry the Eagles to the NJCAA Division II World Series. Hinds won its sixth straight postseason game on Saturday, beating No. 1-ranked Jones County JC 8-7 in Ellisville for the Region 23 championship. Freshman Will Pierce of Vicksburg knocked in the go-ahead run in the eighth inning of a classic title fight. Hinds, national runner-up in 2014, will make its sixth trip to the juco World Series. Sam Temple’s Eagles started this season 2-4 but then ripped off an eight-game win streak. After a few hiccups early in MACJC play, including two blowout losses to Jones, the Eagles won 13 of 15. They wobbled a bit at season’s end and finished 17-11 in the conference, drawing a best-of-3 playoff matchup against East Mississippi. They swept the Lions to make the Region 23 Tournament, where they faced No. 2-ranked LSU-Eunice in the first round. No worries. Hinds won 6-2, then bowled over Pearl River twice to reach the championship round against Jones. The defending national champion Bobcats had lost just three times all year and only once at home, to Pearl River in the first round of the regional. But the Bobcats could not slow Hinds’ roll. Next stop: Enid, Okla. P.S. Meanwhile, in Cleveland, Delta State rode the brilliant pitching of Tre Hobbs and Zach Osbon to a 4-1 win over Nova Southeastern, clinching a berth in the NCAA Division II South Region championship round on Monday. Hobbs, a left-hander from Greenville and Mississippi Delta CC, hasn’t had a great senior year after a dominant junior season that saw him go 13-2 and earn all kinds of honors. But he answered the call on Saturday, allowing just four hits over eight innings. Osbon, a lockdown closer all year, fanned the side in the ninth for the save. DSU is 43-11 and knocking on the door of another D-II World Series trip, which would be the fifth under coach Mike Kinnison.

18 May

that’s baseball

There were two huge stunners in the opening round of the NJCAA Region 23 Tournament in Ellisville and upsets of considerable weight in Hattiesburg and Pearl, as well, on Wednesday. To wit: NJCAA Division II No. 1 Jones County Junior College squandered a four-run lead and fell to Pearl River 5-4 in the regional, and Hinds upended second-ranked LSU-Eunice 6-2. John Moore and Lucas Scott got clutch hits for PRCC and Colby White did the clutch mound work. Jones lost for just the third time all season and first time at home. The Wildcats and Hinds will play in a winner’s bracket game today. Jones meets East Central in an elimination game. … William Carey University won twice to stay alive in the NAIA Opening Round tourney at Wheeler Field. In their second game of the day, the Crusaders rallied to beat top-seeded and ninth-ranked Southeastern (Fla.) University 6-4, forcing a winner-take-all game today for a berth in the NAIA World Series. Carey scored twice in the ninth to tie the score, then went ahead in the 10th on a Christian Smith two-run single. Closer Lane Fazende worked the last three innings to get the win. … West Lauderdale High entered the MHSAA state finals at Trustmark Park with a 31-2 record and is the only Mississippi school ranked by Baseball America at No. 10. But Corinth (29-8) jumped on the Knights for three runs in the first inning and Kyle Crigger made the lead stand up with a complete game effort in a 5-3 win in Game 1 of the best-of-3 Class 4A series. P.S. There also was an upset of note in the SWAC Tournament in New Orleans as Alcorn State, the 4-seed from the East, beat West No. 1 Grambling State 7-6 in 11 innings.

16 May

trifecta

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.

12 May

three to watch

In a recent online chat, a Baseball America scribe made a prediction for this summer’s college Team USA roster that included three players from Mississippi: State’s Konnor Pilkington, Ole Miss’ Dallas Woolfolk and Southern Miss’ Matt Wallner. They are worthy candidates – and certainly worthy of keeping an eye on this weekend as the Big 3 charge toward tournament season. Pilkington, the sophomore left-hander out of East Central High, is slated to start today at Georgia. He is just 5-4 in 12 starts, but his wins have been big ones for the Bulldogs, 32-17 and 16-8, tied for best in the SEC. He has a 3.82 ERA with 84 strikeouts in 73 innings. Woolfolk, a sophomore out of DeSoto Central, has been a solid closer for Ole Miss, which faces a crucial series against nationally ranked Texas A&M in Oxford. While both State and USM are projected as regional hosts in Baseball America’s latest mock NCAA Tournament field, the Rebels (29-20, 11-13) aren’t in at all. Woolfolk has 10 saves, three wins and a 1.91 ERA in 23 appearances. USM (37-12, 19-5 C-USA) can clinch the conference title this weekend against UAB in Hattiesburg. Wallner, a freshman from Minnesota, has been just one of several mashers in the Golden Eagles lineup. The 6-foot-5 outfielder leads the team with 15 homers and is batting .328 (.447 on-base) with 47 RBIs. He also has three saves and a 1.84 ERA on the mound. P.S. East Central Community College has advanced to the NJCAA Region 23 Tournament with a two-game sweep of Mississippi Delta in their best-of-3 series. Game 1 winners on Thursday were Hinds, Northwest and Pearl River. No. 1-ranked Jones County and LSU-Eunice received byes to the six-team region tournament, which starts next week at Ellisville.

23 May

pondering momentum

Whether momentum matters in sports is certainly subject to debate. In fact, whether it exists at all is questionable. But if it does exist, Jones County Junior College would appear to have it as the Bobcats move on to the NJCAA Division II World Series. Chris Kirtland’s club won three straight elimination games to capture the championship in the Region 23 Tournament. JCJC beat No. 1-ranked LSU-Eunice twice in the regional. The Bobcats also snapped a three-game losing skid against MACJC champion East Central with a win on Saturday and then beat the Warriors again Sunday. In Sunday’s 6-5 title clincher, Mason Strickland, a freshman out of South Jones High, worked 3 1/3 scoreless innings in relief of starter Logan Robbins. Strickland beat LSU-E on Thursday to improve to 10-0; Sunday’s save was his first. Mason Irby, Erick Hoard, Fred Franklin and Tanner Huddleston supplied big hits. So with Big Mo now seemingly on its side, Jones (49-8 and ranked third in the latest D-II poll) plays McHenry College of Illinois on Saturday in Enid, Okla. Delta State appeared to have some momentum last week when it beat top-seeded Tampa for its second straight win in the NCAA Division II South Region Tournament and sixth straight W overall. But DSU’s mo then got derailed by Nova Southeastern in a 9-4 loss. A 13-5 victory against West Georgia on Sunday – fueled by Brandon Cummins’ three-hit, two-RBI game — kept the Statesmen (41-16) alive, but they’ll have to beat Nova twice today to claim the region title and make the D-II World Series. With 11 straight wins and an SEC regular season championship in tow, Mississippi State would seem to be riding a huge wave of momentum into the SEC Tournament. Ole Miss might have picked up a little mo, too, by beating Texas A&M in the regular season finale, denying the Aggies a share of the SEC title. But also in Hoover, Ala., this week are five other teams ranked in the top 12 of Baseball America’s most recent poll. Pitching depth might be a tad more important than momentum in the SEC tourney. If there is a state school still playing that would appear to lack momentum, it’s Southern Miss, which lost its last three C-USA games at Florida International and slipped to the third seed in the conference tournament. But, the tournament is in Hattiesburg, and the Golden Eagles are 24-4 in the friendly confines of Taylor Park. Comfort might matter more than momentum – if any such thing really exists.

18 May

here and there

Brian Snitker, the manager of the first Mississippi Braves team in 2005 and a veteran of 40 years in the Atlanta organization, deserved the opportunity to manage in the big leagues. Just not sure if he deserved this: a 9-29 team that can’t seem to do anything right. It was difficult to watch on Tuesday night as the Braves, in Snitker’s debut as Fredi Gonzalez’s replacement, gave up seven runs to Pittsburgh in the first inning. Atlanta battled back – thanks in part to two homers by former M-Braves star Mallex Smith – but still lost 12-9. The Braves are last in MLB in runs, 25th in ERA and 29th in fielding percentage. How much difference can Snitker make? … Hunter Renfroe, the former Mississippi State star from Crystal Springs, homered for the third straight game with El Paso on Tuesday night. Renfroe, a right fielder, is batting .313 with eight bombs and 28 RBIs in 36 games for San Diego’s Triple-A club. The Padres, the worst hitting team in baseball, are last in the National League West. Seems like they could use some help. … Jackson State, which begins SWAC Tournament play today against Texas Southern, leads the SWAC in hitting and homers, but the Tigers do have some arms. While Alabama State’s pitching is far and away the best in the league, JSU’s ERA of 5.31 ranks second. Miguel Yrigoyen, an All-SWAC second-team pick, is 8-3 with a 5.16 ERA, and Jevon Jacobs (3.99), Jamal Wilson (4.42) and Vincent Anthonia (4.73) can get people out. … William Carey University faces an elimination game today in its NAIA regional at Santa Barbara, Calif. The Crusaders beat College of Idaho 7-6 (on Mitch Little’s two-run hit in the seventh) but lost to top-seeded Westmont (Calif.) 14-1 on Tuesday. … At the Clark/Gay Baseball Complex in Decatur on Thursday they can say with literal certainty that it gets no better than this: No. 1-ranked LSU-Eunice vs. No. 2 Jones County Junior College in the first round of the NJCAA Division II Region 23 Tournament. The undercard isn’t bad either: MACJC champion East Central, ranked 14th, and Northwest.