Millsaps College and Belhaven University, NCAA Division III programs in bounce-back mode, are slated to open the 2020 season today. The Majors, 10-33 in 2019, are hosting LeTourneau at Twenty Field on their Jackson campus, while the Blazers, 11-29 in Hill Denson’s final season as coach, play a pair of games (Randolph-Macon and Huntingdon) in a tournament in Montgomery, Ala. For BU, today’s games mark the debut of coach Kyle Palmer, previously director of baseball operations at California Baptist and an assistant at East Texas Baptist prior to that. The Blazers’ top player is Justin Milam, a former Madison Central and Northwest Mississippi Community College standout who hit .296 with five homers and 27 RBIs in 2019. At Millsaps, Jim Page enters his 32nd season with a 774-498-3 record but coming off what he calls “the toughest year we’ve ever had.” The bar for success is high at Millsaps, which has made eight D-III regional appearances under Page and in 2013 went to the College World Series. The Majors’ undoing in 2019 was a pitching staff that posted a 7.48 ERA, but Page said in a school-produced video that he is encouraged by what he saw in fall workouts. He wants his pitchers to throw strikes and trust the defense to make plays. “It’s going to come down to that,” he said. Lefty Taylor Sullivan was a bright spot in 2019, going 3-0 with a 4.11 ERA. With Mason Little (.331) on the shelf with an injury, the top returning hitter is Jimmy Johnstone, who batted .304.
Hill Denson. You’d be hard-pressed to find a baseball fan in Mississippi who doesn’t know that name. In fact, a large percentage of them probably know him personally. He has been involved in the game here for much of his 75 years, playing it, coaching it and elevating it along the way. Belhaven University, where Denson has coached the last 19 years, is throwing a party Saturday at Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium in honor of the Hall of Famer’s pending retirement. The Blazers will play Texas-Tyler at 1 p.m. The celebration will start well before that and won’t end ’til long after the game finishes. Denson played high school ball at Bay Springs, his hometown, then at Jones Junior College and Southern Miss. He is something of a state semi-pro legend. He coached high school ball, including 10 years at Callaway, before taking the job at USM, which he built into a first-rate program during a 14-year tenure. He’s also had tremendous success at Belhaven, winning more than 600 games. He’s part of the fabric of the game here, and Saturday’s celebration is richly deserved.
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.
Busy schedule at Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium (with its artificial surface) this weekend: Millsaps College will play Wisconsin-Platteville on Friday at 2, followed by a Belhaven University-UWP game. On Saturday at 10, Millsaps and UWP will meet again, followed by a doubleheader between Belhaven and Centenary. Millsaps and Centenary will hook up on Sunday at 11, followed by a doubleheader (at 2) between Mississippi College and Gulf South rival West Georgia. That series will conclude on Monday with a noon start. … Unbeaten Delta State bolted to No. 7 – up eight spots – in the new NCBWA Division II poll. The Statesmen are 9-0 heading into a three-game series vs. Union University this weekend at Cleveland’s Ferriss Field. Mississippi College (7-3), ranked as high as No. 7 in one preseason poll, is 18th in the writers poll. … MUW opened its second season with a doubleheader sweep, 10-2 and 12-6, of Lane College on Monday at Columbus High’s field. Owls leadoff batter Heath Ford went 3-for-8 with three RBIs in the two games, and Leon Petite had two hits, three runs and three RBIs. … Tougaloo College and Rust College faced off in a Gulf Coast Athletic Conference series over the weekend, with the host Bulldogs winning both games to improve to 2-5. Rust is a new member of the GCAC this season. … Pearl River Community College’s Shemar Page and Jones County JC’s O’Neil Burgos were named the MACJC pitcher and hitter of the week. Page, a sophomore right-hander from Raleigh, threw five hitless innings with 10 strikeouts in a win last weekend against St. Louis CC. Burgos, freshman out of Brookhaven Academy, went 7-for-13 with a homer and four RBIs in the Bobcats’ 4-0 week. … Meridian CC, ranked No. 4 in preseason by Collegiate Baseball, is off to a 2-2 start with a doubleheader slated for Sunday against Copiah-Lincoln CC at Hartfield Academy in Flowood, just down the highway from Smith-Wills.
“Play ball” time arrives for NCAA Division III schools Belhaven University and Millsaps College this weekend, with the Blazers set to open on Friday at Smith-Wills Stadium and the Majors on Saturday at Twenty Field as part of a round-robin tournament. Belhaven coach Hill Denson has announced that this will be the final season of his long and heralded career. The swan song begins against LeTourneau, a D-III school from Texas. The Blazers, 12-27 in 2018, a rare losing season for Denson, were pegged to finish 11th in the 12-team American Southwest Conference. The team had two players get recognition on the league’s preseason Watch List: second baseman Evan Moore, who hit .297 with 23 runs and 14 steals as a freshman, and right-hander David Hall, who posted a 3-6 record and 4.71 ERA last year. Pitching was a 2018 sore spot for BU, which put up a 6.53 staff ERA. Millsaps will play LeTourneau on Saturday, launching coach Jim Page’s 31st year with the purple and white. He topped 750 career wins in 2018 as the Majors went 25-19. The team returns outfielder Jimmy Johnstone, a .361 hitter and second-team All-Southern Athletic Association pick in 2018; outfielder Brennan Ducote, who batted .374 with four homers and 33 RBIs; and right-hander Conner Haynes, 4-1, 3.22 ERA. … Belhaven and Millsaps will play the first of three Maloney Trophy Series games on March 6 at Smith-Wills.
Opening day is always a special occasion. Belhaven University’s 2019 opener on Feb. 8 at Smith-Wills Stadium has taken on added significance. It’ll be the first game of the last season of Hill Denson’s illustrious coaching career. Denson announced via the school website that he has decided to retire after more than 50 years of coaching at the prep and college level. He has won more than 1,200 games all told, collected a bundle of trophies and awards and been elected to numerous Halls of Fame, including the American Baseball Coaches Association just last year. A former Southern Miss player, he helped lay the foundation for what that program has become during his 14 seasons as the coach there; the field at Taylor Park is named in his honor. He also took Belhaven baseball to new heights, including a trip to the NAIA World Series, over his 19-year tenure. During one memorable year (2005), he coached the Blazers and managed Jackson’s independent pro team, the Jackson Senators. Denson is a down-home, good guy who has had a wide-ranging impact on baseball in this state. This final season is one to celebrate all that, yes, but it’ll be tinged with sadness. Games at Smith-Wills won’t be the same without him.
A little history will be made today. Mississippi University for Women is slated for its inaugural baseball game at the University of Dallas. The Owls, coached by Matt Wolfenbarger, have a 36-player roster comprised mostly of freshmen with a few junior college transfers sprinkled in. MUW, which has applied for NCAA Division III membership, will play four games at Dallas, a D-III school in the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference, then return for a seven-game homestand at Columbus High starting Feb. 16. … Belhaven University also opens today at Centenary in Shreveport, La. This will be the 18th season at BU for Hill Denson, the former Southern Miss coach who was formally inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame last month. The Blazers, still in transition to Division III status, went 26-14 in 2017. They had two players make the American Southwest Conference preseason watch list: Will Costinett (.311, 11 homers in 2017) and Austin Douglas (3-1, 3.86 ERA). … Incidentally, Belhaven will host MUW at Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson on April 11. P.S. Jones County Junior College, ranked No. 1 in the NJCAA’s Division II preseason poll and No. 2 by Collegiate Baseball, opens the season on Saturday against Southwest Tennessee CC in Ellisville.
The news slipped by quietly. Silento Sayles retired on July 6 at age 21. The former Port Gibson High star – who garnered national attention when he stole a prep record 103 bases during his senior year in 2013 – was playing for Mahoning Valley, the Cleveland Indians’ affiliate in the short-season New York-Penn League. In seven games, Sayles was batting .143 with no steals. Drafted by the Indians in the 14th round in 2013, Sayles was projected by some as the next Billy Hamilton, the Taylorsville High product who set a minor league stolen base record en route to the big leagues. But the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Sayles stole only 36 bases and was caught stealing 18 times in his 200 minor league games. He batted .222 with a .320 on-base average. Sayles is one of those players who probably would have benefitted from playing college ball before jumping into the pros. P.S. Kudos to Brent Rooker, who was promoted to high Class A Fort Myers by Minnesota, and Hill Denson, who will be inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2018. Ex-Mississippi State star Rooker, the 35th overall pick last month, went 0-for-4 in his Florida State League debut; he was batting .270 with seven homers in rookie ball. Denson, now the coach at Belhaven University after a long tenure at Southern Miss, has more than 1,000 wins on a resume that includes many coach of the year honors and other achievements.
Cody Satterwhite, the former Ole Miss star out of Hillcrest Christian, is pitching for Triple-A Syracuse in the Washington system. He is 0-2 with a 5.79 ERA in eight appearances. Satterwhite has been in pro ball since 2008, battling through injuries and still chasing the big league dream. The 30-year-old right-hander spent part of last season in Japan, signed with Baltimore in the off-season, was released at the end of spring training and caught on with the Nationals. … Also on the Syracuse roster are Pascagoula’s Joey Butler (.275 in 15 games) and UM product Aaron Barrett (on the disabled list). Butler last appeared in the majors in 2015 with Tampa Bay; he spent 2016 in the Cleveland system. Barrett, who had earned a role in the Nats’ pen in 2014-15, missed all of 2016 with an injury, became a free agent and re-signed with Washington this year. … Ex-Itawamba Community College star and veteran big leaguer Desmond Jennings is hitting .237 with six home runs and 19 RBIs at Triple-A Las Vegas in the New York Mets’ system. Released by Tampa Bay last summer, Jennings signed with Cincinnati, got released again in spring and landed with the Mets. … Murrah High alum and onetime Mississippi Braves pitcher Zack Bird is now in the Texas organization but on the disabled list at Class A Down East. Bird, who made three appearances for the M-Braves in 2015, posted an 8.87 ERA in 28 games in A-ball for the Braves in 2016. The Rangers claimed the big right-hander on waivers. … Tanner Cable, the Belhaven University alum from Southaven, signed with the Gateway Grizzlies of the independent Frontier League shortly after the Blazers’ season ended and has a 3.64 ERA over six games. Cable, who also pitched at Northwest CC and Delta State, was 9-2, 2.29 ERA in two seasons at Belhaven.
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.