13 Jun

look who’s back

Regardless of which school you root for, you have to be impressed by what the collective bunch has done in baseball. Ole Miss is going to the College World Series. Nineteen times in the last 66 years, Mississippi has sent one of its NCAA Division I schools to Omaha, with Mississippi State winning it all in 2021 in its 12th visit. It ain’t easy to get to Omaha. The postseason, starting with conference tournaments, is a grinder. Sixty-four teams get into the NCAAs; eight get to Omaha. Five No. 1 seeds didn’t get out of their regional this year. The overall No. 1 seed (Tennessee) just lost in the Super Regional. Southern Miss, a regional host, survived a five-game dogfight to advance but seemingly had nothing left for Ole Miss in the Hattiesburg Super Regional, failing to score a run in two games. So Ole Miss, which barely made the NCAA field after a mercurial regular season, is Omaha-bound as a regional 3-seed. This will be the Rebels’ sixth trip, second under Mike Bianco, the school’s all-time winningest coach who nevertheless has taken a lot of heat for his teams’ postseason shortcomings. But what’s past is past. Bianco’s current club may have caught lightning in a bottle this postseason. They’ve pitched. They’ve hit. They’ve won five straight, practically in a stroll. It figures to get tougher in Omaha, but would you bet against them? It’ll be interesting to see how UM fans turn out at the CWS. MSU fans took over the ballpark last year, playing a large role in the Bulldogs’ success. That first D-I natty was a big deal for the Magnolia State. Another would be no less special.

01 Jun

behold the power

Fear the Fighting Camels? Beware the ’Noles? If power is the key to winning these days, then the teams to watch in the Starkville and Oxford Regionals, respectively, are Campbell and Florida State. Campbell (35-16) has more total home runs (65) and the best homers-per-game average (1.27) of the four teams bound for Starkville. Matthew Christian leads the Camels with 16. Campbell pitchers also have done a good job of limiting homers, having yielded just 33. Samford (35-22), which plays Mississippi State in the first round, punched its ticket to the NCAAs with two huge homers in the ninth inning of the Southern Conference title game: a game-tying shot by Towns King and a walk-off bomb by Max Pinto. Sonny DiChiara has 16 of Samford’s 64. On the flip side, Samford pitchers have given up 70 homers. Logan Tanner (team-best 16 round-trippers) and the other State sluggers may be salivating over that stat. State (40-15) sits at 60 as a team, eight more than its pitchers have allowed. Another masher of note in that regional is Virginia Commonwealth’s Tyler Locklear, who has 16 bombs. The Rams (37-14) have allowed only 37 homers. … In Oxford, where the red cup crowd really digs the long ball, Florida State (30-22) comes in with 74 homers (1.42 per game, 18th in the nation). The Seminoles’ Mat Nelson is tied for the national lead with 22. FSU opens regional play against Southern Miss (37-19), which has belted 67 bombs, led by Reed Trimble with 14. Ole Miss (41-19) has slugged 75 homers (1.25 per game), led by Kevin Graham’s 14. Tim Elko, perhaps UM’s best power source, has 13 despite missing a big chunk of time with an injury. Rebels pitchers have allowed 65 homers, a relatively high number. Notably, UM’s opening opponent, Southeast Missouri State (30-20), is a relatively power-starved team with just 37 homers. Wade Strauss hit 14 of those.

19 May

familiar refrain

Jackson State went 24-0 in the SWAC, leads the league in batting (.316) and ERA (4.28), leads the nation in stolen bases (131) and enters the league tournament as the No. 1 seed. There is, however, another number stuck to the Tigers that’s not as sparkly. JSU’s RPI, per ncaa.com, is 96. If JSU doesn’t win the SWAC tourney in Madison, Ala., this week, the Tigers’ low RPI won’t rate an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. It’s a familiar refrain at JSU. The out-of-conference resume isn’t good enough. The Tigers were swept three straight to begin the season by a good Mercer team, then lost to nationally ranked Mississippi State and Ole Miss as well as Tulane and split two with Louisiana-Monroe. And since no other SWAC school ranks in the top 200 in RPI, the 24 conference wins don’t carry a lot of weight. So, the heat is on the Tigers to take the tourney title, which they haven’t done since 2014. Coach Omar Johnson, who has posted 15 straight winning seasons, said in an interview with WJTV-12 that his message to the players is “just stay in the moment … play and enjoy it.” He has a strong and balanced club that swept the league individual honors. Player of the Year Ty Hill is hitting .431, Chandler Dillard .367, Freshman of the Year Chenar Brown .357 with eight homers and 45 RBIs. Equon Smith, a .301 hitter, has 24 stolen bases and Jatavious Melton 22. Six Tigers have double-figure steals. Nik Galatas (9-2), Pitcher of the Year Anthony Becerra (8-1) and Mario Lopez (5-0) have been steady starters, Reliever of the Year Steven Davila (six saves, five wins) a rock in the bullpen. Johnson said he wants his pitchers to work fast and his baserunners to be aggressive, a formula that has worked exceedingly well. “We’ve been tested,” he said in the WJTV interview. “We’ve dealt with adversity and guys have come through.” P.S. The first HBCU World Series will be hosted by the Hank Aaron Sports Academy at Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium. The best-of-3 series between the SWAC and MEAC champions will be played from May 28-30. (NCAA regional bids go out May 31.) The event was organized by Black College Nines and BCSG 360, who held a Black College World Series for smaller schools earlier this spring in Montgomery, Ala. Rust College participated.

28 Jun

bottom lines

The college season in Mississippi ended with such cruel irony. Mississippi State, which won so many big games in comeback fashion, was eliminated from the College World Series by a bottom-of-the-ninth rally by Louisville. Having allowed time for the hangover to pass, we can now look back on the 2019 season as one with more than its share of thrills. State, under first-year coach Chris Lemonis, won 52 games, went 37-5 at the “New Dude” (renovated Dudy Noble Field), made its 38th NCAA Tournament appearance, hosted a regional and a Super Regional and made its 11th CWS trip. The Bulldogs earn top-of-the-class honors in the state, but quite a few others belong on the honor roll. Ole Miss made its 23rd NCAA appearance and fell one win shy of the CWS, losing at Arkansas in the Super Regional to end the year at 41-27. Southern Miss went on a late-season roll, winning the Conference USA Tournament and earning its 16th NCAA bid. The Golden Eagles fell in the Baton Rouge Regional to LSU and finished 40-21. Jackson State went 31-24, notching a 13th straight winning season under Omar Johnson. Delta State won another Gulf South Conference title and reached the Super Regional round of the Division II Tournament, falling out at Tampa. The Statesmen went 42-14 in what turned out to be the legendary Mike Kinnison’s last year as coach. Mississippi College also put up a second straight winning season (28-17) under fourth-year coach Jeremy Haworth and just missed a second straight D-II regional invite. Blue Mountain went 26-25-1 in the NAIA ranks, and Mississippi University for Women went 18-13 as a non-scholarship independent and made the USCAA postseason tournament. That’s eight four-year schools with winning seasons. William Carey (24-26), Millsaps (10-33) and Belhaven (11-29) endured rare down years, while Alcorn State (14-31), Mississippi Valley State (8-27) and Tougaloo (5-29) continue to seek the right formula for their programs. Fall ball will be here in a blink.

21 May

college stuff

Not so long ago, Mississippi State was a .500 team starved for runs and searching for answers. Today, State cracked the Top 25 in Baseball America’s new poll and, as the magazine’s editors suggest, may have “lifted itself off the NCAA bubble.” BA’s projected NCAA field last week didn’t have State among the 64 teams. The Bulldogs (31-24) swept No. 1-ranked Florida at Dudy Noble Field over the weekend, putting up 31 runs against a Gators team that, it should be noted, had already clinched the SEC title and a Top 8 national seed for the NCAA Tournament. Still, it has been an impressive late surge by State, which was 19-19 on April 18 after a loss to Memphis. While the Bulldogs’ NCAA regional fate may already be determined, it would certainly help their cause if they beat LSU in the SEC Tournament opener on Tuesday. State is not in the d1baseball.com Top 25, also released today. … Ole Miss (42-14) held steady at No. 4 in the BA poll and appears assured of hosting an NCAA regional. Southern Miss (39-15) finished the regular season with a flourish, scoring 35 runs in a sweep at Marshall, and is ranked 17th. The C-USA champions are the top seed headed into this week’s conference tournament in Biloxi and are a lock for the NCAAs. … Rain has made a mess of the NCAA Division II South Region Tournament, which started last Thursday in Lakeland, Fla. Delta State, which beat Mississippi College in the first round, is scheduled to play Tampa in a winner’s bracket game today. MC is slated for a loser’s bracket game today vs. Albany State. The D-II World Series starts Saturday in Cary, N.C. … Jackson State, the last Mississippi team standing in the SWAC Tournament, bowed out Saturday when Jose Tirado, the league’s relief pitcher of the year, yielded a game-tying run in the ninth and a game-winner in the 10th of a 10-9 loss to Texas Southern. … The last state juco team standing was Meridian Community College. The Eagles upset No. 1-ranked LSU-Eunice in the NJCAA Region 23 championship round on Saturday but were eliminated by the Bengals on Sunday. MACJC champion Pearl River was eliminated by Meridian on Friday. … Rust College has transitioned from NCAA Division III to NAIA and formally becomes the eighth member of the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference this fall. The Bearcats will be the fourth GCAC school with a baseball team, joining in-state rival Tougaloo, Talladega and Edward Waters. Rust, coached by Aurby Burdine, went 0-2 against Tougaloo and 0-4 vs. Talladega in 2018. Founded in 1866 in Holly Springs, Rust is one of the nation’s oldest historically black colleges and universities.

21 Apr

tiger tracks

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.

25 Apr

a defining moment — maybe

The dust has settled and things are chill again in Hattiesburg – we assume – after what was hailed as one of the great moments in Taylor Park history on Sunday. So much to remember from Southern Miss’ 2-1 victory over Rice, which clinched just the second series win ever for the Golden Eagles over the perennially powerful Owls. There was, of course, Daniel Keating’s pinch-hit single that delivered the winning run in the bottom of the ninth. Hunter Slater’s walk to start the ninth. Tracy Hadley’s bunt. Kirk McCarty going seven-plus. Chuckie Robinson belting a home run. Nick Sandlin getting the last four outs. USM climbed out of the postgame dogpile and into first place alone in C-USA. The Eagles are also climbing in the national polls. But Eagle Nation needs to remember this, too: USM went 35-16-1 in 2015 and did not get an NCAA Tournament invitation. The 2016 Eagles, at 29-12, need to keep winning, starting Tuesday when nationally ranked Louisiana-Lafayette comes to town. Sunday’s win over Rice could be one of those defining moments that successful teams like to look back on. But it’ll lose much of its luster if the Eagles can’t ride the momentum over the next few weeks.