Things to look for this weekend when – weather permitting! — the NCAA Division I schools launch their season: At Mississippi State, ranked in the top 10 in just about every preseason poll, J.T. Ginn is the acknowledged ace, coming off a season that saw the right-hander claim national freshman of the year honors. But almost every other significant contributor from the 2019 College World Series pitching staff is gone. It’ll be interesting to see how roles start to shake out in the opening series against Wright State at Dudy Noble Field. … At Ole Miss, there is a lot of buzz about top-ranked Louisville coming to Oxford for the opening series, but there might be just as much about Rebels freshmen Jerrion Ealy and John Rhys Plumlee. What will the roles be for the football players doing double duty this spring and how much impact will they have on the diamond? Both were highly touted baseball prospects in high school – some considered Ealy the best prep player in the state – and both play center field. … At Southern Miss, the playing surface at Taylor Park is now artificial (Field Turf), which will play a little differently than grass and dirt. The Golden Eagles will break in the new field against Murray State in a three-game set. Minus Matt Wallner and a couple of other mashers from last year’s C-USA Tournament champs, the lineup will also have a new look. “We’re probably going to be a little bit different team in the fact that we’re going to have to manufacture some runs. On-base percentage is going to be very crucial for us,” coach Scott Berry said at media day last month. P.S. In the SWAC, Jackson State is at home against Southern Illinois, Alcorn State opens with Prairie View in New Orleans in the Andre Dawson Tournament (formerly the Urban Invitational) and Mississippi Valley State travels to McNeese State. … Alcorn’s second game in New Orleans, against Southern University on Saturday, will be televised by MLB Network at 1 p.m. … On the Trustmark Park College Series docket: USM and State play in Pearl on March 4, USM and Ole Miss meet there on March 31 and the Ole Miss-State Governor’s Cup clash is set for April 21. … Mississippi State will play Texas Tech in a two-game series at MGM Park in Biloxi on March 10-11. The matchup features teams that have gone to the College World Series in each of the last two seasons. … The C-USA Tournament is slated for Biloxi’s MGM Park May 20-24 of this year, its fourth year at the Double-A Shuckers’ home. A scheduling glitch was resolved when Overtime Sports, which is currently managing the C-USA tourney, reportedly agreed to pay the Shuckers to move a Southern League game from May 20 to another date (May 17) as part of a doubleheader. There is some question as to whether the C-USA event will continue in Biloxi beyond 2020.
So many iconic college coaches have worked in Mississippi over the years that the legacy of Willie E. “Rat” McGowan can get lost in the shuffle. McGowan, who died on Tuesday, was the Alcorn State coach for parts of four decades (1972-2009). When you start reeling off the names of the state’s coaching greats — Ron Polk, Boo Ferriss, Hill Denson, Bob Braddy, Mike Bianco, Mike Kinnison, Bobby Halford, Jim Page, et. al — McGowan belongs in the conversation. He accomplished impressive things at a small school with relatively limited resources for baseball. McGowan, who doubled as a football assistant coach during much of his time in Lorman, is Alcorn’s all-time leader in baseball victories with a 720-663-7 record. His last two teams each won 29 games, the school record. He was a four-time coach of the year in the SWAC and is in the conference’s Hall of Fame. The school’s baseball stadium bears his name. The only Alcorn player to make the big leagues – Al Jones, who pitched for the Chicago White Sox from 1983-85 – played for McGowan, as did a dozen others who were drafted. A McComb native, McGowan played baseball and football for the Braves in the late 1950s.
Jackson State will enter the SWAC Tournament next week as a 2-seed but sporting the credentials of a tourney favorite. The Tigers, who finished second to Alabama State in the Eastern Division, have won 17 of their last 20 games (two of those losses were to the Hornets). JSU also leads the league in hitting and ERA and is tied for second in fielding percentage. Clearly, it’s a well-rounded club, one capable of winning a third tournament title under coach Omar Johnson, who has never had a losing season in 13 years at the helm. The Tigers (29-21) play at Kansas on Tuesday and Wednesday in their final tuneups for the SWAC event, which starts May 15 in New Orleans. JSU opens with West 3-seed Texas Southern. Alcorn State, the No. 3 team in the East, plays Grambling in its opener. Mississippi Valley State, which finished last in the East, is ineligible for the postseason. The Tigers’ array of hitting heroes includes Jaylyn Williams (.411, 51 RBIs), Equon Smith (.374, 39 steals, 54 runs), Raul Hernandez (.363, eight homers, 51 RBIs) and Chris Prentiss (.372, 10 triples). Nikelle Galatas tops the pitching staff at 7-3, 4.30. Garth Cahill and Kevin Perez have five wins apiece. The wide net Johnson casts in recruiting is reflected in that group. Williams (Greenville) and Prentiss (Vicksburg) are Mississippi natives, Smith and Perez are from Florida, Galatas from California, Hernandez from Puerto Rico and Cahill from South Africa. The roster also lists players from Canada, the Virgin Islands, Nevada, Michigan and New York.
Jackson State will look to the past on Saturday when it hosts a homecoming celebration of Bob Braddy’s 1977 and 1978 SWAC championship teams. The Tigers are having a pretty good present, too, which may portend a bright future. The resurgent Tigers take a 10-game winning streak into the weekend series against Mississippi Valley State at Braddy Field. Led by a trio of hot hitters, JSU has climbed to 22-18 overall and 9-6 in the league. Valley (6-18, 5-9) limps in on a nine-game losing skid. Jaylon Williams, Equon Smith and Raul Hernandez are all hitting .367 or higher for the Tigers, Williams and Hernandez supplying power with four homers each and Smith lending speed with 32 steals. Kevin Perez has been the most consistent pitcher for JSU coach Omar Johnson with a 4-2 record and 2.64 ERA. The Delta Devils are led by Fredrick Spencer, a .321 hitter who pitched a shutout against Tougaloo on March 27 for the team’s last victory. … Also on the weekend docket: Blue Mountain College hosts William Carey in a compelling matchup of Southern States Athletic Conference rivals. BMC is 24-20-1 and third in the league at 13-8. Carey has battled to reach 17-23, 11-10 (sixth). Player to watch: BMC’s Hayden Tapper, from Nesbit, is the reigning SSAC player of the week after hitting .455 with two home runs and six RBIs, including a walk-off vs. Brewton-Parker. And two more: BMC’s Jose Torres tops the SSAC in steals with 24, while Carey’s Jonathan Turner is batting .351. … Mississippi College rode a nine-game winning spree into the NCBWA Division II Top 25 this week, checking in at No. 17. Alas, the Choctaws lost at Southern Arkansas (in 13 innings) on Tuesday. They’ll take a 25-13 overall record and 17-5 Gulf South Conference mark (tied for first place) into a series at West Alabama this weekend. After a three-hit game on Tuesday, Blaine Crim is raking at .355 with nine homers and 45 RBIs. Looming on the MC schedule: nationally ranked Delta State, next weekend at Frierson Field in Clinton. … Fueled by a five-hit, six-RBI game from Justin Milam, Belhaven whipped Millsaps 12-6 on Wednesday to complete a sweep of the three-game Maloney Trophy Series. Belhaven (10-27) will end its season and bid farewell to retiring coach Hill Denson this weekend in a three-game series (today-Friday) vs. McMurry at Smith-Wills Stadium. Millsaps, in the throes of an 8-29 campaign, finishes its regular season this weekend at Twenty Field in Jackson against Oglethorpe. The Majors will be the 8-seed in the Southern Athletic Association Tournament next week.
Three intra-state clashes on Tuesday produced plenty of crooked numbers but no March Madness-style upsets. In Starkville, Mississippi State, ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation, dispatched Mississippi Valley State 18-5 thanks in part to an eight-run inning. At Braddy Field in Jackson, Jackson State throttled NAIA Tougaloo 13-7, riding an eight-run inning and seven unearned runs. And at Blue Mountain, the NAIA Toppers took two games from fledgling Division III MUW, outscoring the Owls 21-6. As for individual numbers of note: Jordan Westburg went 3-for-5 with four RBIs and three runs for State, now 23-3. For JSU (11-16), Chris Prentiss went 3-for-3 with two RBIs and three runs. BMC (16-17) was led by Trey Hathaway, who drove in six runs in the two games. … Valley (5-9) and Tougaloo (5-18) hook up today in Itta Bena in what could be another wild midweek affair. … Ole Miss (18-8) went up to Memphis on Tuesday and whipped the Tigers 9-6 at AutoZone Park, and Southern Miss (16-6) went down to Metairie, La., and won its eighth straight game, beating Nicholls State by the relatively boring score of 5-0 at Zephyr Field. … Jackson State, which takes a trip to Louisiana-Monroe today, is gearing up for a SWAC series at home this weekend against what the Tigers’ website playfully calls “That School in Lorman.” Alcorn State, which lost a non-league game Tuesday at Grambling 8-7 (giving up seven runs in one inning), is 6-17 and got plastered last weekend by Valley, which outscored the Braves 38-9 in a three-game sweep.
The Magnolia State’s NCAA Division I schools should get some good barometer readings this weekend. Mississippi State, 16-1 and ranked in everybody’s top 10, gets its first true road test of the season when it opens SEC play at nationally ranked Florida (14-5). Nationally ranked Ole Miss (12-5) starts league play with a home series against Alabama, 16-2 but unranked. Southern Miss, wobbling a bit at 8-6, begins defense of its C-USA regular season title at Louisiana Tech (11-5), which features a bunch of Mississippi connections, including coach Lane Burroughs, a former USM assistant. And at Magnolia Field in Itta Bena, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State, both still feeling their way, will lock up in a big SWAC series. JSU is 5-13 (1-2 SWAC) against a schedule that has included Boston College, Mississippi State, UNO and Miami (Fla.). Weather issues have limited Valley to six games; the Delta Devils are 1-5 (0-1 SWAC), including an 8-1 loss at Memphis on Tuesday, and have not played a home game. Equon Smith leads JSU hitters with a .348 average and has scored 15 runs. Raul Hernandez is at .309 with two homers and 16 RBIs. Wesley Reyes (.208) and Dezmond Chumley (.190), preseason All-SWAC picks, have yet to click. Morgan Lomax is hitting .409 for Valley, and Billy Leflore checks in at .381. Neither club has pitched particularly well, and that’ll probably be the key to the series. JSU has a 5.89 ERA, though Kevin Perez (2-1, 3.38) and Garth Cahill (2.18 in nine appearances) have been solid. Valley is at 9.56, having only once held an opponent to fewer than eight runs. Aaron Barkley has the lone win and a 1.50 ERA in six innings of work.
In-state rivalry games do add a certain spice to the college season. Southern Miss and Mississippi State engaged in a compelling three-game series in Starkville last month, and Wednesday at Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium, Millsaps College and Belhaven University battled it out in the first game of the Maloney Trophy Series. The Blazers, behind the arm of Kyle Whittington (two hits, 11 strikeouts in five innings) and the bat of Steven Liuzza (4-for-5, four RBIs), won 13-7, weathering a late Majors comeback. Freshmen Chris Hart (from Northwest Rankin High) and Brayden Stensaas (Pearl) drove in three runs each for Millsaps. BU improved to 6-7, while scuffling Millsaps fell to 3-12. Game 2 of the three-game series between the NCAA Division III rivals is March 19 at Millsaps’ Twenty Field. Also this month we get the first round of the SWAC home-and-homes, with Jackson State visiting Mississippi Valley State March 15-17, Alcorn State trekking to Valley March 22-24 and ASU visiting JSU March 29-31. On March 20, at MGM Park in Biloxi, D-II Mississippi College and NAIA William Carey will hook up. And looming in April are the Trustmark Park College Series games in Pearl: Ole Miss-USM on April 9 and the UM-State Governor’s Cup clash April 23. Those are always spicy.
The target is in plain sight now. Delta State, Mississippi College, William Carey University and five state junior colleges take aim this week on a spot in the World Series in their respective divisions. The state’s three SWAC schools are focused on the league’s tournament title and the NCAA regional bid — the only one the league will get — that goes with it. Delta State and Mississippi College — the Gulf South Conference Tournament champ — are bound for the NCAA Division II South Region tourney; they’ll find out tonight where they’re going and who they’ll play in the first round. It’s a good bet the event will be in Cleveland. The Statesmen won the regional in 2017 and went to the D-II World Series. Carey is hosting an NAIA Opening Round tournament — one of eight regionals — that begins Monday at Wheeler Field in Hattiesburg. The Crusaders, who made the NAIA World Series last year, open with LSU-Shreveport. Also in the five-team field are Westmont (Calif.), Indiana Southeast and top-seeded St. Thomas (Fla.). The NJCAA Division II Region 23 Tournament begins Wednesday at Eunice, La. A berth in the Junior College World Series is on the line. MACJC regular season champion Pearl River Community plays old rival Mississippi Gulf Coast in the first round, while Meridian hooks up with Itawamba and Hinds faces top-seeded and No. 1-ranked LSU-Eunice. Hinds, the defending region champion, reached this year’s event by upsetting No. 3 Jones County in a best-of-3 playoff. Gulf Coast, Meridian and Itawamba also won playoff series last week to advance. The eight-team SWAC Tournament starts Wednesday in New Orleans. Jackson State plays Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Mississippi Valley State meets Grambling and Alcorn State takes on Texas Southern in the first round. Alcorn, which finished fifth in the East Division, made the eight-team field because Alabama A&M is ineligible for postseason play. P.S. Greenwood native and former Pillow Academy star Louis Coleman made his first big league appearance since 2016 on Saturday when he threw 1 2/3 scoreless innings for Detroit in a game against Seattle. The veteran right-hander has a career 3.49 ERA.
Blue Mountain and William Carey face elimination games today in the Southern States Athletic Conference Tournament in Montgomery, Ala. BMC plays Middle Georgia State in the first game of the day, while Carey gets Loyola (New Orleans) in the next game. BMC, which lost its opener on Wednesday, stayed alive with a 4-3 win over Martin Methodist on Thursday, getting a go-ahead RBI hit from Grayson Bowman in the eighth inning. Carey won its opening round game but was crushed by top seed – and NAIA No. 1 – Faulkner 17-2 Thursday. The Crusaders, 0-4 against Faulkner this year, committed six errors and allowed 13 hits and 11 walks. … The Gulf South Conference Tournament format offers a cool possibility: Delta State and Mississippi College will play at Ferriss Field on Monday, and the Pool A championship could be on the line. The four teams in each of two pools play a round-robin starting Saturday, with the two pool winners advancing to the league title game. MC (29-15) beat DSU (38-8) in Cleveland last week, one of only four home losses for the Statesman all year. DSU — seeded No. 1, ranked third in the nation and featuring conference player of the year Zack Shannon — should be favored to win a 15th conference title, but it won’t be a cakewalk. Four other teams in the field have 30 or more wins and six, including both DSU and MC, are ranked in the NCAA Division II South Region poll. … Jackson State still has a chance to win the SWAC East title but may need a little help this weekend from Mississippi Valley State. JSU has finished league play at 17-7. Alabama State is 15-6 heading into a league series at Itta Bena to face the Delta Devils, 9-12 in the league. JSU and ASU split six games in the regular season. The SWAC Tournament starts May 16 in New Orleans. … MUW named freshman pitcher/infielder Will Peters its Male Athlete of the Year at an awards ceremony this week. Peters went 7-2 on the mound and batted .349 as the Owls finished 19-13 in their inaugural campaign.
You don’t have to be a sabermetrician to figure out that this weekend’s Jackson State-Mississippi Valley State series doesn’t favor the host Delta Devils. JSU, which sits atop the SWAC East at 12-3, leads the league in batting. Valley ranks last. JSU leads the league in ERA. Valley ranks last (with a 9.40!). And yet, the Delta Devils have managed to scare up six wins in 12 conference games, including one against the Tigers in Jackson last month. So maybe the stuff on paper won’t mean that much when the two old rivals hit Magnolia Field in Itta Bena, where they’re slated for single games today, Saturday and Sunday. Still, it’s hard to get away from the numbers. JSU trots out a lineup that features the SWAC’s leading hitter, Raul Hernandez (.398), and several others over .300. (Valley has one.) The Tigers’ Jesus Santana is one of the top sluggers in the conference with eight homers and 33 RBIs. (Valley has three homers total.) JSU’s Kevin Perez tops the SWAC in wins with seven and Jose Tirado in saves with nine. (Valley has eight wins all told.) What the Delta Devils could use is another Aaron Barkley or two. (Or three.) The sophomore catcher from California is the team’s lone .300 hitter (at .303) and also carries a 1.59 ERA with a win and two saves in nine relief appearances. Go get ’em.