To win the state championship this season, East Central Community College had to navigate a 28-game gauntlet of nationally ranked teams and longtime rivals. Now the going really gets tough.
Five of the top 14 teams, including Nos. 1, 3 and 4, in the NJCAA Division II poll are gathered in Eunice, La., this week to determine the Region 23 champion in a six-team, double-elimination event that figures to be a tooth-and-nail battle.
The field includes the defending national champion, third-ranked Pearl River Community College, and seven-time national champion LSU-Eunice, the nation’s top-ranked team. Also in the tourney are four other Mississippi schools: No. 4 Meridian, No. 8 East Central, No. 14 Itawamba and Northeast, which just missed a Top 20 ranking. The survivor of the Region 23 Tournament, which starts today, gets a berth in the Division II World Series in Enid, Okla.
“That’s it, that’s the goal,” said East Central coach Neal Holliman, who has won four Mississippi titles but has yet to claim a region crown or juco world series berth in 17 years in Decatur.
The Warriors (33-16), who got a bye into the region field, are rested and as ready as they can be for the challenge ahead, Holliman said.
“To win the regular season championship in our league (the MACCC), that might be tougher than winning a tournament championship,” he said. “The regular season is like a two-month tournament. Playing two double-headers every week, it wears and tears on your guys. We’re very proud to have come through.”
“It’s an incredible accomplishment to say that you’ve survived and made it to the regional,” said Pearl River coach Michael Avalon, whose 2022 team also survived the regional and then won the national title in Enid, just the second by a Mississippi juco.
Holliman had high expectations for this year’s East Central team, which returned the likes of Eli Collins, Leighton Jenkins and Grant Edwards from a 30-win club in 2022.
“We felt like we’d be pretty productive,” the coach said. “You never say, ‘Oh, this team is gonna win a championship,’ even though that’s always the goal. But we felt we had a good group and had a chance to do productive things.”
Things started slowly. On March 7, before conference play began, the Warriors’ record was 8-10.
“That surprised us a little,” Holliman said. “We weren’t playing bad. It wasn’t the Bad News Bears out there, but we weren’t executing in any phase like we were capable of. We have some players with a lot of versatility, and we were trying to find the best formula to have the best team, where everybody fits. Once we got settled into our roles, we took off.”
The Warriors went 23-5 in the league. They swept nine league doubleheaders and split the other five. They had a nine-game win streak and two five-game streaks. They clinched the championship on April 28, the last day of the regular season, by beating East Mississippi in the opener of a twinbill.
They haven’t played a game since. The other Mississippi teams in the region field got there by winning a best-of-3 play-in series. East Central has spent its off time working out and playing intrasquad games. “Our goal for this time was to have the guys prepared and hungry but rested,” Holliman said.
Collins, a Southern Miss signee from Laurel, was a sparkplug for the Warriors, batting .424, driving in 51 runs, scoring 66 and stealing 27 bases. Jenkins, a North Alabama commit from Collinsville, hit .355. Mo Little, a freshman from Brandon, supplied 10 homers and 65 RBIs while batting .350, and Ramie Harrison, from Philadelphia, hit .358.
Edwards, a New Orleans signee, was a whirlwind on the mound, going 4-0 with a 3.38 ERA, three saves and 57 strikeouts in 42 2/3 innings. Luke Cooley, from Waynesboro, went 5-1, and David Burton, from Decatur, posted five saves.
“We’re not a one-dimensional club. To go 23-5, you can’t be one-dimensional,” Holliman said.
There is a bundle of talented players in the regional, and pro and college scouts will be there to watch. LSU-E has its usual array of stars, and the Mississippi contingent will roll out several players who rank among the national leaders in various categories: ICC’s Will Verdung (.402, 16 homers); Meridian’s Dalton McIntyre (.462, 33 steals); Pearl River’s Alex Perry (.377, 62 runs); Northeast’s Khi Holiday (.363, 76 runs); Meridian’s Cole Boswell (11-0, 2.60); Pearl River’s Cooper Cooksey (9-0, 1.26); and Northeast’s Matthew Bullard (9-0).
“It’s six good teams,” Holliman said. “Eunice has a great program. All the Mississippi schools have faced good competition all year. It’ll just depend on who plays best that week and executes in the crucial moments.”
First-round games at Bengal Stadium
Meridian-Pearl River, noon
LSU-Eunice–Northeast, 3:30 p.m.
East Central-Itawamba, 7 p.m.