When you’ve got three NCAA Division I programs ranked in the Top 25 and a fourth with an unbeaten conference season, an NAIA program with a conference title under its belt and a D-II team currently battling for a league crown, you’re going to have a bunch of players with great numbers. Only one can win the Ferriss Trophy, given annually to the state’s best. The finalists have been named: Tanner Allen and Landon Sims from Mississippi State and Kevin Graham, Gunnar Hoglund and Doug Nikhazy of Ole Miss. Outfielder Allen is having a monster year for a top five team: .379, eight homers, 46 RBIs, 50 runs. Sims, the Bulldogs’ closer, is 3-0 with six saves and a 0.56 ERA in 14 appearances. Outfielder/first baseman Graham is batting .339 with 10 homers, 41 RBIs, 44 runs for UM, and pitchers Hoglund (4-2, 2.87, 96 punchouts) and Nikhazy (6-2, 2.47), both highly rated MLB draft prospects, have been outstanding, though Hoglund is now shelved with an arm injury. Consider for a moment the players who didn’t make the final five: Bulldogs pitcher Will Bednar has eye-catching stats: 5-1, 3.31 ERA, 80 strikeouts in 49 innings. And he’s a highly rated draft prospect, too. Rebels reliever Taylor Broadway has nine saves, four wins and a 2.73 ERA in 19 games. Reed Trimble has been Southern Miss’ most productive hitter — .306, 10 homers, 45 RBIs, 43 runs – while Walker Powell (8-2) and Ben Ethridge (6-1) have sparkled on the mound. Jackson State (24-0 in the SWAC), which has never had a Ferriss winner, rolls out Ty Hill (.431), Chenar Brown (.357, eight homers, 45 RBIs), Nik Galatas (9-2) and Anthony Becerra (8-1). Then there’s the small schools. NAIA William Carey, SSAC champion, features two-way star Sloan Dieter (.331, 15 homers, 52 RBIs and an 8-2, 1.89 pitching ledger). And at D-II Delta State, Jake Barlow is hitting .314 with 17 homers, most in the state, and 58 RBIs. The winner will be named on May 24. Only one can win. It’s a tough call. P.S. A future Ferriss winner or two might be playing in this week’s MAIS Class 5A championship series, which will be loaded with NCAA Division I talent. The pitching staffs alone feature Riley Maddox (Ole Miss signee), Mason Nichols (Ole Miss) and Will Gibbs (Mississippi State) of Jackson Prep and Bryce Chance (Mississippi State), Niko Mazza (Southern Miss) and Brayden Jones (Ole Miss) of MRA. Prep (33-3) is No. 2 in MaxPreps’ state rankings, MRA (27-9) No. 7.
Former Southern Miss star Nick Sandlin worked a 1-2-3 inning, capped by a strikeout, in his major league debut today for Cleveland. The sidearming right-hander, who had former big league catcher A.J. Pierzynski raving about his stuff on the FS1 broadcast, retired the Chicago White Sox’s Leury Garcia on a fly ball, Tim Anderson on a bouncer to third base and Adam Eaton via punchout in the sixth inning at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago. Sandlin was a second-round pick by the Indians out of USM in 2018 and posted a 2.68 ERA over 49 minor league games. He was a true ace at USM, going 13-5 with 20 saves as the closer in 2016-17 and 10-0 with a 1.06 ERA as a starter in 2018. He was the Ferriss Trophy winner that final season.
Far from the bright lights of the big leagues, where Shohei Ohtani is generating lots of buzz for his two-way heroics, Sloan Dieter of William Carey University is doing some impressive double-duty stuff down in Hattiesburg. A senior from Lake Charles, La., Dieter was named on Monday the Southern States Athletic Conference’s player of the week for last week. It was the second straight week he has won the award and the fourth time in his three years at WCU he has claimed it. He has also won the SSAC pitcher of the week award three times. Last week, Dieter, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound right-hander, hit .583 with two homers, five RBIs and five runs as the Crusaders went 5-0. He also threw a seven-hit shutout with nine strikeouts last week. He is batting .333 with 14 homers and 45 RBIs for the 30-10 Crusaders and has posted a 7-2 record with a 1.81 ERA. He rates some Ferriss Trophy consideration. For his college career, Dieter is batting .307 with 25 homers and has a 17-5 record with a 2.94 ERA.
As we await the announcement on Monday of the 2019 Ferriss Trophy winner, it feels like a good time to check in on the last two winners of the state’s top college player award, both now in the minor leagues. Southern Miss product Nick Sandlin, last year’s honoree, is dealing at Double-A Akron in the Cleveland system. The sidearming right-hander, a second-round pick last June, has an 0.79 ERA in 10 games (11 1/3 innings) with 17 strikeouts. He earned his first save with a two-inning effort on Thursday night, fanning four of the eight batters he faced. Sandlin zipped through four levels of the minors in 2018, topping out at Akron, and posted a 3.00 ERA, two wins and five saves in 25 games. The Indians moved Sandlin back to the bullpen after he served as the No. 1 starter for USM last year. The 2017 Ferriss winner, Mississippi State alum Brent Rooker, moved quickly up Minnesota’s ladder after being a supplemental first-rounder in June ’17, starting this season at Triple-A Rochester. But the righty-hitting outfielder/first baseman has scuffled at the new level, batting just .222 with six homers and 12 RBIs while striking out 43 times in 90 at-bats. Rooker hit 40 homers over his first two pro seasons and was a Southern League All-Star in 2018. P.S. Cody Reed, the veteran lefty out of Northwest Mississippi Community College, was recalled today by Cincinnati from Triple-A Louisville. He got into one game with the Reds earlier this season and has 40 appearances over the past four years.
There were seven former Ferriss Trophy winners still playing in 2018, three in the big leagues, three in the minors and one still in college. The number is down to six now. Auston Bousfield, the 2014 winner of the prestigious college award while at Ole Miss, announced his retirement prior to the start of spring training. He finished last year in Triple-A in the San Diego system, batting .239 at El Paso. That was also his career average over five seasons. Drafted in the fifth round in 2014, that summer in short-season Class A might’ve been his best. Of the 15 Ferriss winners to date, four have made the majors: the current crop of Drew Pomeranz, Chris Stratton and Hunter Renfroe plus Ed Easley, who retired a couple of years ago. Brent Rooker, the 2017 winner after his monster season at Mississippi State, is currently in Triple-A with Minnesota and will get the big league call soon enough. Southern Miss alum Nick Sandlin, last year’s winner, is currently assigned to Double-A by Cleveland. Jake Mangum, the only freshman Ferriss winner, is still banging out hits at State, having been drafted twice already. He could become the first two-time Ferriss winner.
After two years as a closer extraordinaire for Southern Miss, Nick Sandlin moved to the rotation in 2018 to fill a team need. Shifted back to the bullpen in pro ball, he is showing that he hasn’t forgotten how to do the closer thing. The right-hander with the unconventional form registered his third save in his last three appearances on Thursday for Cleveland’s high Class A Lynchburg club. In six games all told in the Carolina League, Sandlin has a 1.69 ERA with eight strikeouts, two walks and two hits allowed in 5 1/3 innings. Picked in the second round – higher than most projections – by the Indians in June, Sandlin started his summer in rookie ball, moved quickly to the low-A level and then to Lynchburg on Aug. 1. He has a 1.45 ERA, 27 K’s and two walks overall in 18 2/3 innings. He is ranked 18th on Cleveland’s prospect chart by MLB Pipeline. Sandlin threw 102 innings for the Golden Eagles this season – going 10-0, 1.06 and winning a slew of awards, including the Ferriss Trophy – so it’s understandable why the Indians want to limit his innings. But they have to be thrilled with what they’ve seen.
Time to box up the 2018 college season. Put away the bats and balls for a few weeks and make a few acknowledgements:
If there were an award for Team of the Year, it would have to go to Mississippi State, which didn’t win as many games as Ole Miss or Southern Miss (or Delta State, for that matter) but made a captivating postseason run for the ages that ended one win short of the College World Series finals. The banana-powered Bulldogs finished 39-29 and should be nationally ranked across the board when the final polls come out. Gary Henderson did a great job as an interim coach, taking over in an adverse situation, and not retaining him seems a curious and possibly regrettable move in Starkville.
There are many other kudos to hand out. Ole Miss went 48-17, won the SEC Tournament and hosted an NCAA regional. USM (44-18) swept both C-USA titles and also went to a regional. Jackson State finished 34-18. Delta State went 42-11 and made an NCAA Division II regional, as did Mississippi College, which ended the year 36-17, one of its best seasons ever. William Carey went 36-25 and hosted an NAIA regional. Blue Mountain finished 29-23, Division III Millsaps went 25-19 and MUW, in its inaugural season, came home at 21-15 after participating in the USCAA Small College World Series. Alcorn State (13-39), Mississippi Valley State (11-35), Belhaven (12-27) and Tougaloo (19-23) were the only four-year schools to post losing records.
Among the jucos, MACJC champion Pearl River (No. 4), Meridian (14), Jones County (15) and Mississippi Gulf Coast (18) were ranked in the final NJCAA Division II poll.
Game of the year? If you limited it to games between state schools, it’d be hard to top the State-UM game at Pearl’s Trustmark Park on April 24, which the Bulldogs won on Luke Alexander’s two-run double in the bottom of the ninth before a crowd of 8,500-plus. Runner-up: MC beating Delta State 7-4 in an elimination game in the D-II South Regional at Lakeland, Fla. The Choctaws’ Billy Cameron drove in the go-ahead run with a two-run single in the seventh. Worth mentioning: Jackson State-Alcorn in Lorman on March 25. The Tigers rallied from 8-4 down in the sixth inning to win 13-8 and ended the game with a triple play.
No position player in the state had a better year than DSU’s Zack Shannon. He hit .406 with a record 31 homers and 93 RBIs and has picked up all kinds of national honors. USM’s Nick Sandlin, who also garnered national awards and beat out Shannon (and others) for the state’s Ferriss Trophy, was certainly the state’s pitcher of the year, going 10-0, 1.06 ERA in 15 starts. Gulf Coast CC’s Brandon Parker won a juco national player of the year award and both Shannon and Sandlin were semifinalists for the biggest of individual prizes, the Golden Spikes Award, a testament to the quality of ball played in the Magnolia State.
Three state schools (DSU, Carey and Hinds CC) made it to the World Series level in 2017. Only one did so this season, but it was hardly a down year.
You kinda figured it was just a matter of time, and the time has come. Brent Rooker, the former Mississippi State standout now in his first season in Double-A, is hitting. A ton. Rooker went 4-for-5 for Chattanooga on Thursday night and is 14-for-29 since the calendar flipped to June. The right-handed hitting first baseman has raised his average 31 points to .271 since the end of May. “That adjustment period might have been a little longer than I liked, ideally,” he told milb.com. “But I knew it was going to happen if I trusted myself, and the results would show up.” The SEC Triple Crown (and Ferriss Trophy) winner last year has eight homers and 36 RBIs in 56 games and is slugging .475 for the Lookouts. He was picked in the competitive balance segment of the first round – 35th overall – by Minnesota last June and batted .281 with 18 homers at two levels in his debut campaign. MLB Pipeline rates Rooker eighth among Twins prospects. … The Lookouts played a Southern League series in Biloxi in mid-May but won’t be in Pearl to face the Mississippi Braves until mid-August. Rooker could be gone by then.
He left the campus of Mississippi State last spring as the SEC Triple Crown winner, hit .282 with seven homers in a brief fling in rookie ball, then advanced to the high Class A level and cruised with a .280 average and 11 homers in 40 games there. Not surprisingly, the sledding has gotten a little tougher for Brent Rooker in his second pro season. The 23-year-old first baseman/left fielder, a supplemental first-round pick by Minnesota last June, is batting .235 at Double-A Chattanooga. He has three homers, 18 RBIs, 41 strikeouts and six walks in 136 at-bats. Baseball America ranked Rooker as the Twins’ No. 7 prospect entering this season, and MLB Pipeline has him at No. 8. He’s projected to make the majors in 2020. The Double-A level has humbled many hitters, even some as skilled as Rooker. In time, he’ll adjust. He went 3-for-4 with four RBIs in a Southern League game against Tennessee on Tuesday, extending his hitting streak to seven games. … Rooker, the 2017 Ferriss Trophy winner, is one of five former honorees currently playing pro ball. The others are Drew Pomeranz, Chris Stratton, Hunter Renfroe and Auston Bousfield. The 2018 winner will be announced on Monday.
The 2018 Ferriss Trophy winner will be announced a week from today at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in Jackson. Boy, this is going to be interesting. Bill Blackwell, the executive director of the Hall of Fame, says it might be “the toughest choice in the history of the event,” which dates to 2004. The five finalists for best college player in the state are Jake Mangum, Ryan Olenek, Luke Reynolds, Nick Sandlin and Zack Shannon. Consider for a moment some of the players who didn’t make the final five. Ole Miss closer Parker Caracci (1.95 ERA, nine saves for a top 10 team). Mississippi College’s Blaine Crim (.405, 12 homers, 63 RBIs, GSC Tournament MVP). Jackson State’s Raul Hernandez (.384, SWAC Newcomer of the Year). William Carey’s Christian Smith (.330, 52 stolen bases, All-SSAC first team and Gold Glove). Then there’s the finalists. Shannon, of GSC regular season champ Delta State, has had a monstrous season: .425, a nation-leading 29 homers, 86 RBIs. Southern Miss ace Sandlin has been amazing: 7-0, 1.15 ERA, 12.7 strikeouts per nine innings for the likely C-USA champion. His Golden Eagles teammate Luke Reynolds leads the league in hitting at .384 and has 13 homers. Olenek of Ole Miss leads the star-studded SEC in batting at .396. Mississippi State’s Mangum is batting .342; he won the award in 2016 and certainly has not regressed. Plus, he’s considered a solid pro prospect, and scouts do the voting (with minimal fan input). So, Mississippi baseball aficionados, who ya got?