It started on March 12 in an unlikely place against an unlikely opponent. Mississippi College limped into Union University’s Fesmire Field in Jackson, Tenn., with a 2-17 record and seven straight losses. The host Bulldogs were 17-3, leading the Gulf South Conference with a 7-2 record and freshly ranked 24th in NCAA Division II. But just when it seemed as if “Taps” had become the anthem for their season, the Choctaws changed the tune. In the opener of a twinbill played on a chilly Sunday, MC’s Hunter Lacefield, a Northwest Mississippi Community College transfer, and Zack Ingram, a true freshman, combined to hold Union to three hits. Clutch knocks by Hunter Wilson and Casey Echols put the Choctaws up 4-2 in the fifth inning, and they rolled on to win 7-2. Union’s Game 2 starter was Teddy Christie, who sported a 5-0 record. Cue up the “Rocky” music. MC beat Christie 5-4. The Choctaws capitalized on four Union errors and the stout pitching of Hunter Mullis and Tommy Taborda. MC has lost only one game since; the 12-inning win against nationally ranked Southern Arkansas on Wednesday was the team’s ninth straight. At 10-10 in the GSC, they’ve climbed to seventh (of 12) in the standings. They’re fourth in the league in hitting, and the staff ERA, so bad early on, is trending in the right direction, a hair above 4.00 over the last nine games. North Alabama, 13-8 in the league, comes to Frierson Field this weekend for a series that could be very big for the Choctaws in their charge to make the GSC Tournament. Is that “Reveille” playing in the background? P.S. William Carey has dominated its series against Blue Mountain, beating the Toppers 15 times in 16 meetings. They meet again this weekend in an SSAC series at the new BMC SportsPlex, and it could get interesting. Nationally ranked Carey is 25-10, 11-4 in the league. BMC is 25-15, 6-6. James Land and Tyler Graves carry the big bats for the Crusaders, and the Toppers’ Caleb Leach has emerged as one of the SSAC’s best hitters. Three of the conference’s top base stealers also will be on hand: Carey’s Tyler James and Adrian Brown and BMC’s Miciah Heard. … As part of Hinds Community College’s centennial celebration, the school is hosting a tribute to the baseball program tonight in Raymond. Hinds was the first Mississippi school to reach the Juco World Series back in 1989, the year the program was merged with Utica’s. The 2014 Eagles were one win away from claiming the NJCAA Division II national title, which also would have been a first for the state. Jones County JC pulled off that feat last summer.
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.
Only one small college player has won the Ferriss Trophy over its 13 years: Belhaven University’s Craig Westcott in 2009. The 2017 coronation is a long ways off, but there are a couple of NAIA players whose hitting exploits this season bear notice. James Land, a senior first baseman at William Carey, belted three home runs at Mississippi College on Tuesday, running his season total to 11. He leads the Southern States Athletic Conference in slugging at .807 and ranks near the top in homers, batting average (.404) and RBIs (38). Land, a former Harrison Central and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College star, was named the SSAC’s player of the week last week (after batting .591 with 11 RBIs in five games). The reigning SSAC player of the week is Caleb Leach of Blue Mountain. A junior infielder/outfielder from Florida, Leach batted .600 with a pair of homers, five RBIs and eight runs last week and is at .397, five homers and 27 RBIs for the year. He leads the Toppers in slugging (.612) and runs (33). It should help the cases for Land and Leach that both Carey and BMC are having strong years. The nationally ranked Crusaders are 23-9, 9-3 SSAC, and the Toppers are 23-15, 6-6, easily the best start in their short history.
A dreadful start is becoming a distant memory for Mississippi College. After losing 17 of their first 19, the Choctaws have slugged their way to seven victories in their last eight games, including winning three straight Gulf South Conference series. They swept West Georgia at Frierson Field in Clinton this weekend, taking Saturday’s doubleheader 15-11 and 10-1. Hunter Austin and Will Elliott drove in three runs each in the first game, though the overshadowed hero may have been pitcher Jake Fraze, who delivered 4 1/3 innings of stellar relief as MC held off the Wolves. In Game 2, Hunter Mullis tossed a four-hitter, and Blaine Crim and Casey Echols delivered big hits. Led by Chance Whitten (.330, seven homers, 19 RBIs), Echols (.364) and Elliott (.286, three homers, 18 RBIs), MC’s hitting has been productive most of the season, Jeremy Haworth’s second as coach. What the Choctaws need is more pitching along the lines of what Fraze and Mullis provided on Saturday. The staff ERA is 6.38. MC faces an interesting showdown against William Carey on Tuesday at Frierson Field. The Crusaders are 23-7 (with a game against Mobile today) and ranked ninth in NAIA. And Carey hitters can rake: .313 average, 9.2 runs per game. P.S. Delta State is also on a roll, moving to 21-7 with a sweep of GSC foe North Alabama on Saturday. The Statesmen, who’ve won seven straight, scored 26 runs in those two wins, 18 in Game 2, in which Clay Casey went 4-for-4 with four RBIs and four runs and Josh Russell knocked in five runs.
It’s a road trip weekend for the state’s small colleges. The only one slated for a home game is Tougaloo, which will start its three-game series against Loyola-New Orleans in Biloxi today before returning to Jackson on Saturday. … Delta State (15-7, 7-5 Gulf South) travels to Alabama-Huntsville. The Statesmen lost a home conference series against West Georgia last weekend, then bounced back with an 8-1 win over Mississippi Valley State on Wednesday. Zack Shannon, batting .442, hit his fourth homer of the year in that win. … Mississippi College is hoping to ride some momentum from a twinbill sweep at Union last Sunday as it takes on Christian Brothers in Memphis in a GSC series. Casey Echols (.393) continues to sizzle for the Choctaws, now 4-17, 2-9. … William Carey, ranked 12th in the new NAIA poll, takes its 19-5 record to Brewton-Parker for a Southern States Athletic Conference series. The Crusaders, 5-1 in league play, will look for more big things from Tyler Graves, batting .427 with 38 RBIs. … Blue Mountain (16-10, 2-4), which got a one-hitter this week from Jonas White against Crowley’s Ridge, travels to Bethel for an SSAC series. … Belhaven (10-7, 2-4) and slugging Stephen Sexton (.361, six homers) head to Texas to tangle with American Southwest Conference foe McMurry. … Millsaps takes on longtime rival Rhodes in a Southern Athletic Association series. The Majors are just 8-10 (0-2 SAA) but are one of just two teams to beat Emory, the No. 1-ranked team in NCAA Division III.
From early indications, Belhaven University is going to bounce back from what Hill Denson called his program’s “worst season.” The Blazers, who slumped to 20-18 in 2016, are 7-3 heading into a three-game weekend series at Texas-Tyler, which is ranked in the latest d3baseball.com poll. The Blazers, not yet eligible for the postseason in NCAA Division III, are ranked No. 8 in the National Christian College Athletic Association poll. Making the NCCAA’s postseason tournament is a reasonable goal for BU, which appears to have a good balance of power and speed plus depth in its pitching staff. Terrell Hodges, in his second season in the green and gold, is batting .412 with two homers, 11 RBIs and 11 runs. Fellow veterans Daniel Ammirati and J.G. Miley are at .375 and .342, respectively, and Miley has five steals. Stephen Sexton, a Pontotoc native who transferred in from Arkansas-Monticello, has stood out among the newcomers with a .353 average, three homers, 11 RBIs and 11 runs. Tyler Wolfe, a juco transfer, and Tanner Cable, injured much of 2016, have been the pitching stalwarts. Wolfe is 3-0 with a 1.53 ERA and two complete games, while Cable is 1-0, 2.18. P.S. There are no parades scheduled in Hattiesburg or Perkinston, but both William Carey and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College are celebrating homecomings. Carey, forced from its campus by the Jan. 21 tornado, will play at Wheeler Field for the first time, hosting Loyola-New Orleans for a three-game Southern States Athletic Conference set that begins today. WCU is 12-4 with eight straight wins. In Perkinston, Gulf Coast will play Illinois Central in a Saturday twinbill in its first games at renovated Farris Field since April 2015. The Bulldogs are off to a 9-1 start. Meanwhile, in Cleveland, Delta State, which has played only one of its 13 games at home, will host Union in a three-game Gulf South Conference series this weekend at Ferriss Field. DSU is 10-3, 4-2 GSC.
0 – Runs yielded in seven innings by Tre Hobbs, whose two-hitter on Saturday capped Delta State’s season-opening three-game sweep at Harding over the weekend.
4 – Home runs by the Statesmen, each by a different player.
4 – Hits by true freshman Grant Barber, who also scored three runs and drove in two as Mississippi College went 1-3 against Florida Tech.
5 – Wins in five games to date for Blue Mountain College, which got a combined 18 hits from Peyton Callahan and Josh Whitaker in those wins.
7 – RBIs by BMC’s Callahan over those five games.
8 – Strikeouts by MC’s Jake Fraze, who allowed two runs in seven innings to get the one W for the Choctaws.
8 – RBIs by Larson Barkurn as William Carey opened with two wins in four games played at three different locations.
9.28 – ERA posted by Carey’s pitching staff in those four games.
24 – Runs scored by Millsaps College in winning two of three at Huntingdon.
The best performance by a state college in 2016 was delivered by Jones County Junior College, which won its first national championship. Do the Bobcats have an encore in them? The editors of Collegiate Baseball magazine apparently think so. CB’s comprehensive 2017 preseason issue is out, and it’s got JCJC ranked No. 1 in NJCAA Division II. Chris Kirtland’s Bobcats lost a few key players from last season (most notably Mason Irby, now at Southern Miss) but return a strong core from a 54-win squad. Mason Strickland, Ben Stiglets and Logan Robbins were a combined 28-0 on the bump. Erick Hoard batted .409 with 19 homers, Tanner Huddleston .392 with 12 homers and Fred Franklin .378 with 22 steals. The Bobcats may be challenged for state supremacy by Meridian CC, ranked 18th in CB’s poll. … Ole Miss is ranked No. 22 in the NCAA Division I poll. The Rebels, 43-19 and a regional host in 2016, return the likes of Tate Blackman, Colby Bortles and Will Stokes, and Mike Bianco reeled in what CB ranked as the No. 2 recruiting class in the country. Mississippi State, which won the SEC regular season title and hosted a regional and Super Regional last year, is picked fifth in the SEC West. New coach Andy Cannizaro has some rebuilding to do, as does Southern Miss’ Scott Berry. USM, which won the Conference USA Tournament in 2016, is pegged for a third-place finish in the league. … In the SWAC, Jackson State is picked second, Alcorn State third and Mississippi Valley fifth in the five-team East Division. JSU’s Cornelius Copeland emerged last year as one of the league’s best players. … In NAIA, William Carey checks in at No. 23. The Crusaders won 40 games last year, made the postseason and welcome back top hitters Tyler Odom and Adrian Brown, slugger James Land and pitcher Devin Smith. Believe it or not, Carey opens Feb. 3.
The play at the plate – following two relay throws – long will be remembered in Hattiesburg. Southern Miss won its first Conference USA Tournament title since 2010 today, cutting down a Rice runner at home to preserve a 3-2 victory at Taylor Park. And so this remarkable season for Magnolia State baseball barrels ahead. USM’s tournament title is the second for the state in 2016; Delta State won the Gulf South Conference crown. Mississippi State won the regular season title in the SEC, and the Bulldogs will join the Golden Eagles and Ole Miss in the NCAA Tournament, all three possibly hosting regionals. And don’t forget that Jones County Junior College, which claimed its region tournament, is still playing in the NJCAA Division II World Series, having won its opener on Saturday. DSU reached the championship round of the NCAA Division II South Region tourney, and William Carey did the same in its NAIA regional, both coming up just short of the World Series in their divisions. P.S. In case anyone was wondering: There were 18 former Jackson Mets who played for the New York Mets during the 1986 championship season, which was celebrated at Citi Field this weekend. The Mets’ Double-A club had been in Jackson for 12 years by 1986 and would play at Smith-Wills Stadium for four more. … In case anyone hadn’t noticed: Jeff Francoeur, the former Mississippi Braves star, was batting .292 for Atlanta heading into today’s game. It’s good to see – and hear – Francoeur getting cheers again at Turner Field. … Debut alert: Former MSU standout Chris Stratton from Tupelo, now in the big leagues with San Francisco, will be the 18th Mississippian (native or college alum) to play in MLB this year when he makes his first appearance.
If there is one opposing player Delta State wants to keep reined in today in Tampa, Fla., it would be John Silviano. The Lynn University star enters the NCAA Division II South Region contest with 30 home runs and 74 RBIs. The sophomore catcher was the Sunshine State Conference player of the year. Lynn (33-20 and seeded fifth in the seven-team regional) had two other all-conference players, both second-teamers: Ryan Donovan (.343, 12 homers) and John Borup (.339). DSU (38-15 and seeded fourth) may have a little more star power: Gulf South Conference pitcher of the year Tre Hobbs and Will Robertson, a Ferriss Trophy finalist who is batting .426 with 71 RBIs, lead a pack of five Statesmen who earned All-GSC honors. For what it’s worth, the Statesmen also have an edge in history, with 30 NCAA regional appearances, 61 all-time wins and 11 titles. Lynn has six regional appearances, including three straight. Should DSU beat Lynn, next up is a game on Friday against top-seeded, No. 2-ranked and defending D-II national champ Tampa. P.S. William Carey’s Adrian Brown didn’t make the cut for Ferriss Trophy finalist, but he kept the Crusaders’ season alive with a ninth-inning home run that beat College of Idaho in an NAIA regional on Wednesday. Brown, son of the former major league outfielder of the same name, has had a heck of a year: .389, five homers, 42 RBIs, 51 runs and 28 steals in 58 games. He’s likely to get drafted. Carey plays top-seeded Westmont (Calif.) in an elimination game today in Santa Barbara, Calif.