07 May

slam dances

Nathan Herron put up what might just be the hitting performance of the year among Mississippi college players, belting two grand slams Friday to power Belhaven University to an 11-4 win against Hardin-Simmons in the American Southwest Conference Tournament. Herron, a sophomore third baseman out of South Panola High, hit five homers with 32 RBIs during the regular season. The Blazers (27-14) play UT-Dallas today in the second round of their double-elimination bracket at Richardson, Texas. In other postseason play: Delta State got a grand slam and eight RBIs all told from Blayke Dendy in a 13-0 run-rule win over Shorter in the Gulf South Conference Tournament at Oxford, Ala. Dendy’s eighth homer of the year backed the stellar pitching of Harrison Haley, now 10-1. DSU, the top seed, takes a 31-13 record into today’s game against Lee University. … Blue Mountain’s season ended with an 11-9 loss to Loyola-New Orleans in the Southern States Athletic Conference Tournament at Columbus, Ga. The Toppers lost despite a seven-run first inning. Loyola moves on to play William Carey today; the Crusaders are 2-0 in the tournament. … A walk-off two-run homer by Justin Williams gave Hinds Community College an 11-10 win over Mississippi Gulf Coast and puts the Eagles in the NJCAA Region 23 Tournament at Poplarville next week. The Eagles, under first-year coach Dan Rives, swept the MACCC best-of-3 series. Williams, a freshman out of Madison-Ridgeland Academy, went 4-for-5 in the clincher. Sean Smith had a grand slam and seven RBIs for Gulf Coast. … Jones College, under first-year coach Wes Thigpen, also advanced to the six-team region tourney by run-ruling host Northeast 11-1 to sweep that series. … Northwest is at Meridian and East Mississippi hosts East Central in winner-take-all games today.

25 Apr

three things, college edition

The unquestioned top story in Mississippi college baseball in 2022 has been the steady rise of Southern Miss, ranked No. 6 in the country in the new Baseball America poll. Also high on the list: the struggles of Mississippi State and Ole Miss; and the resurgence of NCAA Division III schools Belhaven University and Millsaps College. To wit: USM swept Rice over the weekend, holding the once-mighty Owls to five runs in three games as starters Tanner Hall, Hunter Riggins and Hurston Waldrep took turns at dominance. The Golden Eagles (32-8, 16-2 C-USA) have won 14 straight games and can set a school record for consecutive W’s by beating Southeastern Louisiana on the road Tuesday. USM’s staff has a 2.80 ERA and 460 strikeouts in 363 innings. That kind of pitching is hard to beat. … Defending national champion MSU and Ole Miss, briefly ranked No. 1 this season, had fallen to the bottom of the SEC West standings when they met in Oxford over the weekend. Who saw that coming? But the outcome at Swayze Field was fairly predictable: The Bulldogs won their sixth straight series over the Rebels, with coach Chris Lemonis improving to 8-2 vs. UM. Rebels coach Mike Bianco is 38-48 vs. State. They meet again Tuesday at Trustmark Park in Pearl in the Governor’s Cup (nee Mayor’s Trophy) game with a huge crowd expected. Has the rivalry begun to wane, as some wonder? Not hardly. “I grew up hating those guys. This is awesome,” Brad Cumbest, who hit the game-winning homer for State in Saturday’s rubber game, told 247sports.com. … Millsaps swept Sewanee at home over the weekend to improve to 21-18 and 11-10 in the Southern Athletic Association. Jim Page’s Majors are the 6-seed in the conference tournament slated for Georgia later this week and will meet old rival Rhodes in the opening round. Belhaven took two of three from Ozarks (at Frierson Field in Clinton) over the weekend and is 24-13, 17-10 in the American Southwest Conference. Under third-year coach Kyle Palmer, the Blazers are currently third in the league with one series remaining before the tournament, which will be the team’s last in the ASC. BU moves to the Collegiate Conference of the South next season.

16 Apr

still kicking

Millsaps College finishes regular season play with a pair of doubleheaders at old rival Rhodes College today and Saturday. The NCAA Division III Majors are 7-13 in Southern Athletic Association play and stand sixth in the league standings. The top four make the league tournament next week. Center is the current fourth-place team at 9-10. The Majors (9-20 overall) are coming off a twinbill sweep of Hendrix last Sunday that kept their postseason hopes alive. Sam Pitre drove in five runs in the two games and earned SAA player of the week honors. Pitre (.406) and Mason Little (.350) have provided consistent offensive production, but pitching (league-high 8.61 staff ERA) and defense (league-worst 74 errors) have dragged the Majors down. … D-III Belhaven University, with nine games left on its schedule, is 16-11 and 11-7 American Southwest Conference, though the Blazers have dropped five of their last six. The top eight teams in the 12-team league make the ASC Tournament field; the Blazers currently sit fifth. They are at LeTourneau for a three-game series this weekend. Kyle McLaughlin, at .412, ranks among the league’s top hitters and Brett Sanchez (8-1, 2.18 ERA) has been a consistent force on the mound for BU.

23 Mar

blazing a trail

Among the pantheon of outstanding pitchers in Mississippi’s collegiate ranks this season, Belhaven University’s Brett Sanchez is putting up numbers that are second to none. The sophomore right-hander from Slidell, La., is 6-0 with a 0.90 ERA in six starts for the NCAA Division III Blazers, who are 13-5 and 8-1 in the American Southwest Conference. He has been named the ASC pitcher of the week three times and was the D-III pitcher of the month for February. “He’s a special person,” said Kyle Palmer, Belhaven’s second-year coach. “His mindset is key for him. … He believes he is the best player on the field and that’s the way he pitches.” Sanchez, who goes 6 feet 4 and uses a submarine-style motion, has 49 strikeouts and just four walks in 50 innings. In his last outing, Friday at Howard Payne, Sanchez worked 11 innings, yielding four runs (three earned) on 10 hits with nine punchouts and one walk. “He has two pitches (fastball and curve) he can throw in the zone at any time,” Palmer said. Sanchez’s athleticism is crucial to his repeatable delivery, Palmer said, and the 15 mph difference in his two pitches keeps hitters off balance. Sanchez went 3-2, 2.36 in five starts in the abbreviated 2020 season. He began his college career at NAIA Dakota State in South Dakota. The Belhaven connection came via catcher Chase Kitchens, who knew Sanchez from Slidell, knew he was looking to get closer to home and put his friend in touch with Blazers assistant coach and chief recruiter Josh Clarke. … The Blazers, who are hitting .331 as a team led by Kyle McLaughlin (.473) and Nick Lucido (.427), host ASC foe Sul Ross State at Smith-Wills Stadium this weekend (Friday twinbill, Saturday single game). Sanchez is penciled in to start Game 2 on Friday.

07 Feb

fresh starts

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.

05 Apr

celebration

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.

07 Mar

reveling in rivalry

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.

20 Feb

small talk

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.

07 Feb

opening acts

“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.

11 Jan

something special

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.