The quest for an elusive national championship begins this weekend for Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Southern Miss, with both State and UM hosting NCAA regionals. The Magnolia State claims three national titles in baseball, but none in NCAA Division I. Fifty years ago, William Carey University won the NAIA World Series. Fifteen years ago, Delta State took the NCAA D-II crown. And in 2016, Jones County Junior College came home with the NJCAA D-II title. (Pearl River CC’s run ended on Tuesday.) The D-I schools have come close to winning it all in recent years. MSU lost in the best-of-3 final to UCLA in 2013; that’s the Bulldogs’ best showing in 10 CWS appearances. Ole Miss reached the semifinal round in 2014 in its first CWS trip since 1972. (USM made its first and only CWS appearance 10 years ago but didn’t stick around Omaha long). As a No. 6 national seed, the Bulldogs have the clearest path – if it can ever be called that — to Omaha this year. The Rebels, the No. 12 overall seed, likely would have to go on the road (to Arkansas) for their Super Regional. The Golden Eagles go to Baton Rouge as a regional 3-seed but are riding the wave of another C-USA Tournament championship. Baseball is a major source of pride for the state. It has become commonplace for the Big 3 to show up in preseason national polls, contend for conference titles and even get regional host bids. Just imagine what a national championship would do for the state’s growing reputation as a baseball hotbed.
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.
So, who won the weekend among the small colleges? Gotta go Delta State, which remained undefeated (5-0) with wins on Saturday over Southern Arkansas and Henderson State in an event at Arkadelphia, Ark.; David Herrington is raking at a .471 clip for the Statesmen, and Darek Sargent is hitting .412 with 10 RBIs. … Props also to Mississippi College, which moved to 6-1 by taking three of four from Lindenwood, including a sweep by the counts of 15-2 and 10-0 on Sunday. Garrett Hollinghead and Zack Ingram provided the pitching brilliance for the Choctaws, and Blaine Crim homered in both games. Crim is batting .346; Billy Cameron leads the MC attack at .417. … Belhaven opened its season by going 2-1 at Smith-Wills Stadium, including a Saturday upset of Rhodes, which is nationally ranked in NCAA Division III. Trip Benson had the game-tying and winning RBIs for the Blazers. … Millsaps, led by a four-hit effort from William Wagner, opened its season with a win over LeTourneau on Saturday but squandered an early lead on Sunday and fell 17-7 to Maryville. … Blue Mountain split four games with Central Baptist and is now 5-2-1. Trey Hathaway is 10-for-30 with six doubles and six RBIs for the Toppers. … One of the best individual performances of the weekend was delivered by William Carey’s J.C. Sanner, who threw a three-hit shutout at NAIA nationally ranked Campbellsville. The Crusaders are off to a 3-5 start. … Tougaloo lost three at NAIA power LSU-Shreveport to fall to 0-5.
Names to know from college baseball’s opening weekend, which was, for the most part, a rousing one for Magnolia State schools:
Darek Sargent, Delta State: 5-for-10, a homer, seven RBIs as the Statesmen went 3-0 against East Central University.
Hunter Riggins, DSU: 5 2/3 shutout innings, one hit, 10 strikeouts.
Billy Cameron, Mississippi College: 4-for-10, a homer, four RBIs as the Choctaws swept three at Harding.
Zack Ingram, MC: six innings, one run, nine strikeouts.
Kyle Bayles, William Carey: 5-for-15, five runs, four RBIs, five shutout innings as the Crusaders went 2-2 against Missouri Baptist and Ave Maria.
J.C. Sanner, WCU: six innings, no earned runs, 12 strikeouts.
Drake Wallace, Blue Mountain: 3-for-10, a homer, five runs, four RBIs as the Toppers went 3-0-1 against William Wood.
Mason Woolridge, BMC: two saves, three scoreless innings.
Brian Dozier, the former Southern Miss star, has agreed to a 1-year, $9 million deal with the Washington Nationals, published reports say. Dozier, 31, batted .215 with 21 homers and 72 RBIs last season, which the second baseman split between Minnesota and the Los Angeles Dodgers. The former All-Star looks like a good fit in a Nationals lineup that includes – at the moment – Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Trea Turner and Ryan Zimmerman and on a team that likely will contend in the strong National League East. P.S. Petal High product DeMarcus Evans was named Texas’ minor league reliever of the year and will be honored at the Dr Pepper Texas Rangers Winter Warmup on Jan. 25 in Arlington, Texas. Evans, a 25th-round pick in 2015, was 4-1 with nine saves, a 1.77 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 56 innings at Low Class A Hickory. The 6-foot-5, 275-pound right-hander also pitched in the Arizona Fall League. … Former William Carey star Tyler James was rated the fastest prospect in Kansas City’s system in a recent mlb.com article. A 25th-round selection in 2017, James led the rookie Arizona League with 31 steals in 2017 and the rookie Pioneer League with 38 last summer, when he also batted .312.
The contrast is striking. Delta State has won 96 postseason games, 68 in region play, and claimed 12 regional titles, including the 2017 NCAA Division II South Region, and one national crown. Mississippi College has been playing baseball a long time and had some good years, but the Choctaws had never played in an NCAA D-II regional before this season. The longtime rivals are meeting today in Lakeland, Fla., in the first round of the D-II South Region Tournament. Delta State is 40-9 and seeded third in a loaded field. MC, which won the Gulf South Conference Tournament for the first time ever, beating DSU along the way, is 33-15. This is MC’s best run since 2010, when it played in a Division III regional. The school left Division II and the GSC in the mid-’90s and returned in 2015. … What else is going on? Lots. In Pearl, at Trustmark Park, the MHSAA state finals continue today. … In New Orleans, Jackson State opened SWAC Tournament play on Wednesday with a 13-3 pounding of Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Four Tigers drove in three runs, including Jesus Santana, who hit his ninth homer of the year. JSU moves into a winner’s bracket game today against defending SWAC champ Texas Southern. Mississippi Valley State and Alcorn State both lost on Wednesday and face elimination games today. … In Hattiesburg, William Carey stayed alive in the NAIA Opening Round tourney with a 6-2 victory against Indiana-Southeast but then saw its season end with a loss against top-seeded St. Thomas. … In Eunice, La., in the opening round of the NJCAA Division II Region 23 Tournament, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College beat MACJC champ Pearl River, Itawamba topped Meridian and Hinds fell to No. 1-ranked LSU-Eunice. The double-elimination event continues today. … MUW went 2-2, bowing out Wednesday, in something called the ASCAA World Series in Dubois, Penn. Matt Wolfenbarger’s Owls finished their inaugural season with a 21-15 record.
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.
As much as baseball aficionados love to throw around statistics, there’s only one that really matters. Runs. Score more than the other guy and you’ll never lose. Delta State has done a pretty good job of that and has a 13-1 record to show for it. The Statesmen, currently ranked No. 2 in NCAA Division II, have scored 128 runs (9.1 per game, which is tough to beat) to their opponents’ 71. Zack Shannon, the highly decorated senior slugger, has impressive Triple Crown numbers: .431 average, eight homers, 23 RBIs. He also leads the team in runs with 20. He is one of seven DSU players with double-digit runs. They get on and they get in. DSU’s D-II rival Mississippi College also gets around the bases at a good clip: 124 runs in 15 games. The Choctaws are 13-2. They have eight double-figure scorers, led by Kyle Smith with 19. William Carey has scored enough (114 runs to its opponents’ 74) to post a 16-4 record. Ranked No. 8 in NAIA, the Crusaders are led by Christian Smith, who has 20 runs – plus a .354 average and 20 steals. Interesting note: Tyler Reid, a .220 hitter for WCU, has reached base safely 18 times (11 hits, six walks, one HBP) and has scored 17 runs. That’s efficiency. D-III Millsaps, averaging 7.2 runs per game in an 11-5 start, has three players with 16 runs: Chase Callaway, Andy Page and Connor Woodall. The Majors’ top hitter, Brennan Ducote (.431, four homers, 22 RBIs) has scored 14 times. Among the D-I schools, nationally ranked Ole Miss, off to a 12-1 start, has scored 93 times (a healthy 7.2 runs per game), led by Thomas Dillard with 13. The red-hot Grae Kessinger (.353) has tallied 12 runs. Scoring alone isn’t enough, of course. You’ve also got to hold down the other team. Southern Miss, also nationally ranked, has been a prolific scoring club, averaging 9.6 runs a game even after Wednesday’s 3-0 loss at Alabama. Newcomer Luke Reynolds, batting .426 with four homers and 18 RBIs, leads the team with 19 runs. But the Golden Eagles have lost four times (against eight wins) and in three of those losses, they’ve allowed nine or more runs, losing by scores of 10-9, 13-10 and 9-6.
The hitting hero of a busy weekend for the state’s small colleges was Brian Lane, a senior at Delta State. Lane went 6-for-12 with a home run and nine RBIs as the Statesmen rebounded from a season-opening loss with big wins on Saturday and Sunday in Florida. Shut out by Lynn on Friday, DSU – ranked No. 1 in NCAA Division II – erupted for 31 runs against Nova Southeastern and Palm Beach Atlantic. … Playing at home in Hattiesburg, William Carey, ranked sixth in NAIA, won its first three games behind a pitching staff that yielded only three earned runs. Cole Edgens threw a three-hit shutout against Georgetown College on Saturday. … Mississippi College opened with a doubleheader split against Lindenwood on Saturday; the rubber game was rescheduled for today at Frierson Field in Clinton. Kyle Smith sparked the Choctaws with five hits and four RBIs in the two games. … Millsaps got 20 hits in its two games at Huntingdon in Alabama but scored just four runs and lost twice. … Tougaloo went 0-3 at Talladega, though two of the losses were one-run defeats. … Blue Mountain took three of four from visiting William Woods to improve to 5-2. Miciah Heard is off to a hot start (10-for-25, six RBIs) for the Toppers. Jonas White is 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA in two starts.