Tough call on the hottest spot this weekend. You could go with Hattiesburg, where Southern Miss and Florida Atlantic will face off for first place in Conference USA. Or you could go with College Station, Texas, where SEC championship contenders Mississippi State and Texas A&M are hooking up; the Aggies won Game 1 9-2 on Thursday. Of course, in Gainesville, Fla., you’ve got Ole Miss, battling for an NCAA regional spot, taking on Florida, also still in the SEC title conversation. Meanwhile, at Braddy Field in Jackson, Jackson State looks to secure first place in the SWAC East when it meets Alabama A&M. Cast a glance, too, at Montgomery, Ala., where William Carey plays Faulkner today in a winner’s bracket game in the SSAC Tournament. The loser will play Blue Mountain later today in an elimination game; the Toppers stayed alive on Thursday by whipping Martin Methodist 11-1. Carey already has earned an NAIA regional host bid. But hold on. Even with all of this other stuff going on, Cleveland wins. The Gulf South Conference Tournament begins Saturday at Ferriss Field with both top seed Delta State and seventh-seeded Mississippi College in action in separate four-team pools. The only way the two could meet again is in the championship game on Tuesday. DSU has won 13 tournament titles and, considering how the Statesmen dominated the regular season, is the odds-on favorite to win again. MC, officially back in the NCAA Division II GSC this season after 20-plus years, qualified for the tournament with an impressive late surge that included a win over Delta State last week. Second-year coach Jeremy Haworth’s team went 20-25 overall. MC’s last GSC Tournament appearance came in 1996, when the Choctaws went 2-and-out. The team’s best result came in 1984, when it won the South Division Tournament and lost to North Alabama in the championship series. P.S. Awards have been rolling in, including GSC player and coach of the year honors for DSU’s Zack Shannon and Mike Kinnison; SSAC player of the year for Carey’s James Land; and a national player of the week award for MC’s Blaine Crim. … The five finalists for the Ferriss Trophy will be named on Sunday, May 14. The announcement ceremony, featuring former Ole Miss star and big leaguer Don Kessinger, is May 22.
Jackson State rules the SWAC. At this moment. JSU will have to prove itself again in the SWAC Tournament next month, but there can be little debate about whether the Tigers are the SWAC’s best team right now. Omar Johnson’s club has won 11 straight games to improve to 29-11 overall and 15-3 in the conference heading into a weekend series against Alcorn State at Lorman. Tigers hitters and pitchers lead the SWAC in just about everything. They’re batting .327 with an amazing 338 runs. The 3.45 staff ERA is almost two runs better than the second-best number in the league. JSU hitters also lead the SWAC in slugging, steals, doubles and triples, and the pitchers lead in strikeouts, shutouts, complete games and saves. All-SWAC candidates abound: Lamar Briggs, Miguel Yrigoyen, Jesus Santana, Bryce Brown, Cornelius Copeland. Two of the Tigers’ three SWAC losses came against Alabama State in early March; JSU got some payback by sweeping the Hornets three straight on the road last weekend. The other loss was to Alcorn in Biloxi on March 17. Johnson has rather quietly built a nice resume at JSU with well over 300 wins in 11 seasons, two SWAC championships and several division titles. More hardware may be coming. Baseball America projects the Tigers as SWAC champs and an NCAA regional participant. With an RPI that likely will be around 200, they’ll have to win the tournament to get in. P.S. William Carey University, ranked 23rd in the latest NAIA poll, gets a crack at No. 2 Faulkner in a three-game SSAC series this weekend in Montgomery, Ala. Faulkner, which had been No. 1 the previous six weeks, is 39-8, 14-4, just a notch ahead of the Crusaders (29-14, 15-6) in the league standings. Faulkner’s T.J. Condon leads the SSAC in home runs (18) and RBIs (57). Carey’s James Land, who has 15 homers, is the league’s top hitter at .392. Faulkner’s Israel Fuentes and Ivan Pelaez rank 2-3 in ERA, with Carey’s Lane Fazende and Cole Edgens at 4-5. … Belhaven is ranked 10th in the NCCAA poll released this week and may be positioned for an invitation to the organization’s national tournament. The Blazers are 23-14 heading into their last American Southwest Conference series of the season at LeTourneau. BU, in transition from NAIA to NCAA Division III, is not eligible for the ASC Tournament.
Beyond that big SEC series going on in Oxford this weekend – and Game 1 certainly moved the needle on the drama meter – there are other games of interest scattered around the state. In Lorman, at Rat McGowan Field, Alcorn State hosts Alabama State, the SWAC leader, in a three-game set. The Braves, 3-6 in the league, have a chance to climb the standings by taking down the 7-2 Hornets, who feature the league’s leading hitter, Cage Cox from Cairo, Ga. In Hattiesburg, at Wheeler Field, NAIA No. 9 William Carey, which has lost three straight games, tries to get back on track in an SSAC series against Bethel, which comes in at 18-12, 5-4. Carey is 23-9, 9-3. They are two of the top hitting teams in a league known for hitting. In Jackson, at Twenty Field on the Millsaps campus, the Majors, needing to make a stand in the Southern Athletic Association race, face off against Hendrix, which is in a similar situation. Millsaps (11-15 overall) is 2-6 in the league, Hendrix (9-16) 3-6. In Fulton, at Cresap Field, ninth-ranked Itawamba Community College hosts MACJC leader Pearl River CC for a Saturday doubleheader. ICC is 18-4, 5-1 in conference. Unranked PRCC is 15-5, 6-0, and has won 10 straight. The Wildcats have four regulars batting .327 or better – Lucas Scott leads the way at .436 — and five pitchers with two wins, including Colby White, who also has three saves. At Oak Grove High’s R.A. Clinton Park, the Warriors, ranked No. 15 in MaxPreps’ latest Xcellent 25, will look to beef up their 15-1 record when they host Meridian today and Seminary on Saturday (before a trip to Purvis on Saturday night). Oak Grove is led by Drew Boyd, a Southern Miss signee who is hitting .396 with four bombs and boasts a 4-0, 0.00 pitching ledger.
Jackson State has won six of seven to put an 18-8 shine on its record. The Tigers lead the SWAC standings and lead the SWAC stats by a wide margin in batting average, scoring and ERA. Three Tigers – Lamar Briggs, Bryce Brown and Wesley Reyes – are hitting .360 or better. Briggs, Cornelius Copeland and Jesus Santana have scored 22 runs apiece. Santana leads the league in RBIs with 29, and Briggs has 23. On the bump, Miguel Yrigoyen is 3-1 with a 2.08 ERA, and closer Jose Tirado has a 1.15. But this is no time for strutting. A stern test is at hand — a challenge and an opportunity. The Tigers are in Fort Myers, Fla., this weekend to face perhaps the best team on their schedule, one they’ve never met before. Florida Gulf Coast is 19-3 and ranked 12th by Baseball America. The Eagles beat then-No. 1 Florida State last week and then-No. 2 Florida twice the week before that. The Eagles can hit (7.4 runs per game) and pitch (3.18 ERA), too. DH Nick Rivera is coming off a nine-RBI game against Rutgers. It’s a trip to the coast for Omar Johnson’s Tigers, but it’s certainly no day at the beach.
Big: Mississippi State beat Arkansas 5-1 on Friday in Starkville to keep pace with Texas A&M in the SEC. Both are 20-9, best in the West and overall with one game left in the season. State (39-14-1) last won a regular season title in the SEC in 1989. The Bulldogs go for the sweep of the Razorbacks today while also pulling for Ole Miss, which will try to salvage the series finale against Texas A&M at College Station. The Aggies are 5-0 against the Magnolia State this year.
Bigger: Delta State took down Tampa, ranked as high as No. 2 in NCAA Division II, on Friday to move to 2-0 in the South Region tournament at Tampa, Fla. There is still work to do, but DSU (40-15) is smelling what would be a 12th regional championship and a trip to the D-II World Series.
Biggest: East Central Community College topped Jones County Junior College 11-10 in the NJCAA Division II Region 23 Tournament on Friday at Decatur. The Warriors, MACJC champs, are in the championship round, awaiting the winner of an elimination game between No. 2 JCJC and No. 1 LSU-Eunice. The region champ gets a berth in the NJCAA D-II World Series.
P.S. The season ended on Friday for Jackson State and Alcorn State in the SWAC Tournament and for Northwest CC in the Region 23 tourney. William Carey’s season ended Thursday in an NAIA regional. … If you haven’t seen the catch made by former Mississippi Braves star Jason Heyward on Friday night in San Francisco, find the highlight. Playing right field for the Chicago Cubs, Heyward tracked down a fly ball into deep right-center, making what the Giants announcers on XM radio were calling the best catch they had ever seen.
Players roll out from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Canada, Curacao, South Africa, Venezuela, the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands. Sounds like a World Baseball Classic event has convened, but it’s just an everyday occurrence at Jackson State. Coach Omar Johnson’s multicultural team, which also includes eight players from good ol’ Mississippi, is showing signs of coming together after an uneven start. The Tigers, who take their show on the road to Biloxi tonight for an exhibition game with the minor league Shuckers, blew away Mississippi Valley State in a three-game series over the weekend. By beating the Delta Devils 10-3, 16-5 and 19-9, JSU moved its SWAC record to 6-3 (after an 0-3 start). Overall, the Tigers are 17-11. Jesus Santana (Puerto Rico) hit three home runs, two of them grand slams, in the Valley series and leads the team with nine homers and 37 RBIs. Such production was expected from Santana, a preseason player of the year candidate in the SWAC. Also contributing good stuff is catcher Carlos Diaz, another Puerto Rico product who is raking at a .451 clip; pitcher Miguel Yrigoyen, a Venezuela native who is 4-2; Canadian Jesse Anderson, who has three saves; and C.J. Newsome, who hails from Columbia, the city in south Mississippi. Newsome was drafted by Miami out of CHS last summer but elected to play at JSU. Tiger Nation should be thrilled. The 5-foot-9 outfielder, who had eight hits, six RBIs and six runs in the Valley series, is hitting .382 with 31 runs.
While the focus of the sports world this weekend will be elsewhere — in places like Las Vegas, Louisville, Ky., Chicago and Talledega, Ala. — there will be some relatively significant stuff going on in Jackson and Lorman, specifically at Braddy Field and Rat McGowan Stadium. Jackson State, third in the SWAC East with a 14-7 mark, hosts first-place Alabama State (16-5) in the final regular season conference series. The Tigers, led by Melvin Rodriguez (.448, 68 RBIs) could steal the crown (with some help) in this three-game set. JSU’s pitching hasn’t been so great (6.36 ERA), but the club has found compensation in a .310 team batting average. Meanwhile, Mississippi Valley State will visit Alcorn State in a battle for fourth place in the East Division — and a SWAC Tournament berth. Neither the Delta Devils (9.21) nor the Braves (8.82) scare you much with their arms, but they trot out some hitters of note. Valley’s Brady McBride is batting .352, and Alcorn’s Scotty Peavey is at .345. The Braves’ Collin Carroll has bashed 10 homers, tied for the SWAC lead with JSU’s Jesus Santana. P.S. William Carey was bounced from the Southern States Athletic Conference Tournament on Friday and joins Belhaven, which went 2-and-out, on the sidelines. The Crusaders are 30-23 and the Blazers 33-25, but neither is going to get an NAIA postseason bid.