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.
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.
William Carey and Delta State, both dreaming of a long and lustrous postseason, get started on that quest this week with conference tournament play. Carey, nationally ranked in NAIA, is the fourth seed in the Southern States Athletic Conference Tournament and plays Mobile on Wednesday at Montgomery, Ala. Bobby Halford’s Crusaders are 35-17 and finished 17-8 in the SSAC. Carey’s split of two games with Loyola of New Orleans over the weekend cost Blue Mountain a berth in the SSAC tourney. BMC finished 7-19 in the league, ninth behind Loyola’s 7-18. The 23 wins were the most in a season for Curt Fowler’s still-young BMC program. Delta State (34-15), nationally ranked in NCAA Division II, heads into the Gulf South Conference Tournament as the No. 2 seed at 23-10. The event starts Saturday at Pensacola, Fla. Mike Kinnison’s Statesmen took two of three from Mississippi College over the weekend, clinching the No. 2 spot in the tournament with a 23-6 bashing of the Choctaws in Game 1 of a Sunday twinbill. MC finished 17-30 and 7-25 in its first year under Jeremy Haworth and second season back in the GSC.
The number William Carey University got on Tuesday was 22. The Crusaders likely would have preferred a 30. On the same day it moved back into the NAIA national rankings at No. 22, Carey failed in a bid for its 30th win, losing to LSU-Alexandria at Wheeler Field in Hattiesburg. That setback aside, Bobby Halford’s Crusaders are a team on the march. They are 29-14 with nine wins in their last 12 games, including taking best-of-3 series from a pair of top 10 teams. Carey is 11-6 in the Southern States Athletic Conference heading into a series this weekend at Bethel (21-14, 7-8). Tyler Richardson and Adrian Brown have won the last two SSAC player of the week honors. Richardson is batting .329 and leading the team in homers (five), RBIs (38) and runs (42). McComb native Brown, son of the ex-big leaguer of the same name, is at .385 with 33 RBIs and 20 steals. Tyler Odom of Hattiesburg leads the team in hitting with a .417 average, Magee’s Stevie Hubbard is at .386, Cody Christian at .338 and Tyler James has 26 steals. Carey has outscored its opponents 339-170, getting strong pitching from Devin Smith (6-0, 2.25 ERA), Taylorsville’s Mason Woodrow (4-1, 3.46) and J.D. Little (5-1, 4.13). Carey has nine league games left as it jockeys for SSAC Tournament position. The Crusaders are fifth in the standings but have a 4-2 mark against the first- and second-place clubs, powerhouses Faulkner and Auburn-Montgomery. An NAIA postseason bid is well within the Crusaders’ grasp.
Old rivals Belhaven and William Carey will meet in the first round of the Southern States Athletic Conference Tournament on Wednesday in Montgomery. Fourth-seeded BU (38-17) took two of three from 5-seed Carey (31-24) in the regular season series at Smith-Wills Stadium in February. The Mississippi schools are in the same side of the bracket as NAIA second-ranked and tourney top seed Faulkner (42-12). Belhaven, as host of an NAIA regional, is assured of life after the SSAC event; Carey is going to have to play its way into a bid. … Millsaps, bounced from the Southern Athletic Association postseason by top-seeded Birmingham-Southern on Sunday, plays Mississippi College in a makeup game on Tuesday in Clinton. That might be the end of the road for the Majors (23-18), who would seem to be a longshot for an NCAA Division III at-large bid. … D-II No. 7-ranked Delta State, which claimed first place in the Gulf South Conference regular season by sweeping No. 4 West Florida in Cleveland over the weekend, will open GSC Tournament play on Friday at Birmingham. The top-seeded Statesmen (35-9) meet 8-seed Christian Brothers in the first round.