Of all the wins racked up by Mississippi colleges over the weekend, none was more significant than Millsaps College’s conquest on Sunday of nationally ranked Birmingham-Southern. The Majors, coming off the worst season in coach Jim Page’s long tenure, were 5-7 heading into their Southern Athletic Association opening series on the road against the No. 8 team in NCAA Division III. BSC is the defending SAA champion and D-III College World Series runner-up. The teams split a doubleheader to begin the series, setting up Sunday’s rubber game that the Majors won in blowout fashion, 12-7. Behind home runs from Fritz Walker III and Chris Hart, the Majors bolted to a 10-1 lead. Erstwhile football player Walker, batting .362, leads the team with four homers and 18 RBIs. Hart, a Northwest Rankin High product, entered the game just 5-for-45 on the season. He banged out three hits, including a grand slam that was his first homer of the year. An unsung hero for the Majors was freshman Brady Davis, who recorded the last five outs to snuff out any BSC comeback hopes. … Meanwhile, tough times continued for Mississippi Valley State, which was swept in a home SWAC series against Alabama State to fall to 0-13. Two of the Delta Devils’ six SWAC losses were by one run and two were by two runs. Valley hasn’t scored more than four runs in any game and has managed that total only twice.
Rivalries in baseball may not boil the blood as they do in football and basketball, but they still have a special feel. Red Sox-Yankees. Dodgers-Giants. Mississippi State-Ole Miss. Similarly, Jackson State-Alcorn State isn’t just another conference series. The longtime rivals meet this weekend to open SWAC play. Today’s Game 1 and Sunday’s series finale will be played at JSU’s Braddy Field, with the middle game on Saturday moving to Smith-Wills Stadium. Fans of the two schools don’t need to be reminded that Alcorn State won the 2019 football game – in convincing fashion – and Jackson State swept the two men’s basketball games this season. There’s a measure of pride at stake this weekend. The Tigers lead the all-time series 158-101-1, according to an Alcorn press release. JSU is 3-4, led by a dynamic offense that features C.J. Newsome (.500, eight runs, three steals) and Jaylyn Williams (.500, six RBIs). Steven Davila has been JSU’s steadiest pitcher, with a 1.23 ERA over three appearances. Alcorn’s staff ERA is 7.16, though Joe Smith, a product of Jackson’s Jim Hill High, has pitched well (3.60 in two outings). Travaris Cole paces the 2-3 Braves’ attack at .391 with three homers and 11 RBIs. Tristan Garcia (.438) had a four-hit game at Ole Miss last week. P.S. It was announced Thursday that the SWAC Tournament will be played at Smith-Wills for the next three years. The 2020 dates for the eight-team, double-elimination tournament are May 13-17. This isn’t the first time the event will be played at the old ballpark on Cool Papa Bell Drive. The 2000 and 2007 tourneys were played there. The 2006 event was held at Trustmark Park in Pearl. From 1988-95, the SWAC played its championship in Natchez.
From the Didn’t See That Coming Dept., we have this score from Starkville: Texas Southern 8, Mississippi State 4. Anything can happen on a given day in baseball, but still, when a winless SWAC team takes down a consensus top 10 SEC club on its home field, that’s going to send reverberations far and wide. “This is the second-biggest win in the history of the university,” TSU coach Michael Robertson said in a school release. The only thing bigger, Robertson said, would be a 2004 NCAA regional win against defending national champion Rice. Bulldogs shortstop Jordan Westburg had this take: “This is a really big wake-up call. It should hurt. It should hurt for everybody on the team … .” TSU, now 1-9, took a 7-3 lead with a four-run fourth. K.C. Hunt and David Dunlavey, State’s first two pitchers, allowed those seven runs (only four earned) on six hits, four walks, three wild pitches and a hit batsman. The Bulldogs made two critical errors. They stranded 11 runners, scoring just once after the second inning. “We’re not competing right now in a lot of different ways,” State coach Chris Lemonis said in a school release. State (5-2), which lost to Oregon State on Sunday, returns to Dudy Noble Field today to face another SWAC school, Alcorn State, which battled Ole Miss tooth-and-nail last week before losing on an Anthony Servideo walk-off bomb. … Meanwhile, in Oxford on Tuesday, Ole Miss and Southern Miss put on a show befitting a rivalry game. The nationally ranked Rebels won 4-3, getting a clutch go-ahead homer from Hayden Leatherwood in the seventh inning and some gritty relief pitching from Braden Forsyth, who struck out two batters with the go-ahead run on base in the ninth. Leatherwood hit 22 homers the previous two years at Northwest Mississippi Community College. For USM, Will McGillis, a product of Hattiesburg’s Presbyterian Christian School, went 3-for-5 with a go-ahead homer in the top of the seventh.
Things to look for this weekend when – weather permitting! — the NCAA Division I schools launch their season: At Mississippi State, ranked in the top 10 in just about every preseason poll, J.T. Ginn is the acknowledged ace, coming off a season that saw the right-hander claim national freshman of the year honors. But almost every other significant contributor from the 2019 College World Series pitching staff is gone. It’ll be interesting to see how roles start to shake out in the opening series against Wright State at Dudy Noble Field. … At Ole Miss, there is a lot of buzz about top-ranked Louisville coming to Oxford for the opening series, but there might be just as much about Rebels freshmen Jerrion Ealy and John Rhys Plumlee. What will the roles be for the football players doing double duty this spring and how much impact will they have on the diamond? Both were highly touted baseball prospects in high school – some considered Ealy the best prep player in the state – and both play center field. … At Southern Miss, the playing surface at Taylor Park is now artificial (Field Turf), which will play a little differently than grass and dirt. The Golden Eagles will break in the new field against Murray State in a three-game set. Minus Matt Wallner and a couple of other mashers from last year’s C-USA Tournament champs, the lineup will also have a new look. “We’re probably going to be a little bit different team in the fact that we’re going to have to manufacture some runs. On-base percentage is going to be very crucial for us,” coach Scott Berry said at media day last month. P.S. In the SWAC, Jackson State is at home against Southern Illinois, Alcorn State opens with Prairie View in New Orleans in the Andre Dawson Tournament (formerly the Urban Invitational) and Mississippi Valley State travels to McNeese State. … Alcorn’s second game in New Orleans, against Southern University on Saturday, will be televised by MLB Network at 1 p.m. … On the Trustmark Park College Series docket: USM and State play in Pearl on March 4, USM and Ole Miss meet there on March 31 and the Ole Miss-State Governor’s Cup clash is set for April 21. … Mississippi State will play Texas Tech in a two-game series at MGM Park in Biloxi on March 10-11. The matchup features teams that have gone to the College World Series in each of the last two seasons. … The C-USA Tournament is slated for Biloxi’s MGM Park May 20-24 of this year, its fourth year at the Double-A Shuckers’ home. A scheduling glitch was resolved when Overtime Sports, which is currently managing the C-USA tourney, reportedly agreed to pay the Shuckers to move a Southern League game from May 20 to another date (May 17) as part of a doubleheader. There is some question as to whether the C-USA event will continue in Biloxi beyond 2020.
So many iconic college coaches have worked in Mississippi over the years that the legacy of Willie E. “Rat” McGowan can get lost in the shuffle. McGowan, who died on Tuesday, was the Alcorn State coach for parts of four decades (1972-2009). When you start reeling off the names of the state’s coaching greats — Ron Polk, Boo Ferriss, Hill Denson, Bob Braddy, Mike Bianco, Mike Kinnison, Bobby Halford, Jim Page, et. al — McGowan belongs in the conversation. He accomplished impressive things at a small school with relatively limited resources for baseball. McGowan, who doubled as a football assistant coach during much of his time in Lorman, is Alcorn’s all-time leader in baseball victories with a 720-663-7 record. His last two teams each won 29 games, the school record. He was a four-time coach of the year in the SWAC and is in the conference’s Hall of Fame. The school’s baseball stadium bears his name. The only Alcorn player to make the big leagues – Al Jones, who pitched for the Chicago White Sox from 1983-85 – played for McGowan, as did a dozen others who were drafted. A McComb native, McGowan played baseball and football for the Braves in the late 1950s.
Jackson State will enter the SWAC Tournament next week as a 2-seed but sporting the credentials of a tourney favorite. The Tigers, who finished second to Alabama State in the Eastern Division, have won 17 of their last 20 games (two of those losses were to the Hornets). JSU also leads the league in hitting and ERA and is tied for second in fielding percentage. Clearly, it’s a well-rounded club, one capable of winning a third tournament title under coach Omar Johnson, who has never had a losing season in 13 years at the helm. The Tigers (29-21) play at Kansas on Tuesday and Wednesday in their final tuneups for the SWAC event, which starts May 15 in New Orleans. JSU opens with West 3-seed Texas Southern. Alcorn State, the No. 3 team in the East, plays Grambling in its opener. Mississippi Valley State, which finished last in the East, is ineligible for the postseason. The Tigers’ array of hitting heroes includes Jaylyn Williams (.411, 51 RBIs), Equon Smith (.374, 39 steals, 54 runs), Raul Hernandez (.363, eight homers, 51 RBIs) and Chris Prentiss (.372, 10 triples). Nikelle Galatas tops the pitching staff at 7-3, 4.30. Garth Cahill and Kevin Perez have five wins apiece. The wide net Johnson casts in recruiting is reflected in that group. Williams (Greenville) and Prentiss (Vicksburg) are Mississippi natives, Smith and Perez are from Florida, Galatas from California, Hernandez from Puerto Rico and Cahill from South Africa. The roster also lists players from Canada, the Virgin Islands, Nevada, Michigan and New York.
Jackson State will look to the past on Saturday when it hosts a homecoming celebration of Bob Braddy’s 1977 and 1978 SWAC championship teams. The Tigers are having a pretty good present, too, which may portend a bright future. The resurgent Tigers take a 10-game winning streak into the weekend series against Mississippi Valley State at Braddy Field. Led by a trio of hot hitters, JSU has climbed to 22-18 overall and 9-6 in the league. Valley (6-18, 5-9) limps in on a nine-game losing skid. Jaylon Williams, Equon Smith and Raul Hernandez are all hitting .367 or higher for the Tigers, Williams and Hernandez supplying power with four homers each and Smith lending speed with 32 steals. Kevin Perez has been the most consistent pitcher for JSU coach Omar Johnson with a 4-2 record and 2.64 ERA. The Delta Devils are led by Fredrick Spencer, a .321 hitter who pitched a shutout against Tougaloo on March 27 for the team’s last victory. … Also on the weekend docket: Blue Mountain College hosts William Carey in a compelling matchup of Southern States Athletic Conference rivals. BMC is 24-20-1 and third in the league at 13-8. Carey has battled to reach 17-23, 11-10 (sixth). Player to watch: BMC’s Hayden Tapper, from Nesbit, is the reigning SSAC player of the week after hitting .455 with two home runs and six RBIs, including a walk-off vs. Brewton-Parker. And two more: BMC’s Jose Torres tops the SSAC in steals with 24, while Carey’s Jonathan Turner is batting .351. … Mississippi College rode a nine-game winning spree into the NCBWA Division II Top 25 this week, checking in at No. 17. Alas, the Choctaws lost at Southern Arkansas (in 13 innings) on Tuesday. They’ll take a 25-13 overall record and 17-5 Gulf South Conference mark (tied for first place) into a series at West Alabama this weekend. After a three-hit game on Tuesday, Blaine Crim is raking at .355 with nine homers and 45 RBIs. Looming on the MC schedule: nationally ranked Delta State, next weekend at Frierson Field in Clinton. … Fueled by a five-hit, six-RBI game from Justin Milam, Belhaven whipped Millsaps 12-6 on Wednesday to complete a sweep of the three-game Maloney Trophy Series. Belhaven (10-27) will end its season and bid farewell to retiring coach Hill Denson this weekend in a three-game series (today-Friday) vs. McMurry at Smith-Wills Stadium. Millsaps, in the throes of an 8-29 campaign, finishes its regular season this weekend at Twenty Field in Jackson against Oglethorpe. The Majors will be the 8-seed in the Southern Athletic Association Tournament next week.
Three intra-state clashes on Tuesday produced plenty of crooked numbers but no March Madness-style upsets. In Starkville, Mississippi State, ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation, dispatched Mississippi Valley State 18-5 thanks in part to an eight-run inning. At Braddy Field in Jackson, Jackson State throttled NAIA Tougaloo 13-7, riding an eight-run inning and seven unearned runs. And at Blue Mountain, the NAIA Toppers took two games from fledgling Division III MUW, outscoring the Owls 21-6. As for individual numbers of note: Jordan Westburg went 3-for-5 with four RBIs and three runs for State, now 23-3. For JSU (11-16), Chris Prentiss went 3-for-3 with two RBIs and three runs. BMC (16-17) was led by Trey Hathaway, who drove in six runs in the two games. … Valley (5-9) and Tougaloo (5-18) hook up today in Itta Bena in what could be another wild midweek affair. … Ole Miss (18-8) went up to Memphis on Tuesday and whipped the Tigers 9-6 at AutoZone Park, and Southern Miss (16-6) went down to Metairie, La., and won its eighth straight game, beating Nicholls State by the relatively boring score of 5-0 at Zephyr Field. … Jackson State, which takes a trip to Louisiana-Monroe today, is gearing up for a SWAC series at home this weekend against what the Tigers’ website playfully calls “That School in Lorman.” Alcorn State, which lost a non-league game Tuesday at Grambling 8-7 (giving up seven runs in one inning), is 6-17 and got plastered last weekend by Valley, which outscored the Braves 38-9 in a three-game sweep.
The Magnolia State’s NCAA Division I schools should get some good barometer readings this weekend. Mississippi State, 16-1 and ranked in everybody’s top 10, gets its first true road test of the season when it opens SEC play at nationally ranked Florida (14-5). Nationally ranked Ole Miss (12-5) starts league play with a home series against Alabama, 16-2 but unranked. Southern Miss, wobbling a bit at 8-6, begins defense of its C-USA regular season title at Louisiana Tech (11-5), which features a bunch of Mississippi connections, including coach Lane Burroughs, a former USM assistant. And at Magnolia Field in Itta Bena, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State, both still feeling their way, will lock up in a big SWAC series. JSU is 5-13 (1-2 SWAC) against a schedule that has included Boston College, Mississippi State, UNO and Miami (Fla.). Weather issues have limited Valley to six games; the Delta Devils are 1-5 (0-1 SWAC), including an 8-1 loss at Memphis on Tuesday, and have not played a home game. Equon Smith leads JSU hitters with a .348 average and has scored 15 runs. Raul Hernandez is at .309 with two homers and 16 RBIs. Wesley Reyes (.208) and Dezmond Chumley (.190), preseason All-SWAC picks, have yet to click. Morgan Lomax is hitting .409 for Valley, and Billy Leflore checks in at .381. Neither club has pitched particularly well, and that’ll probably be the key to the series. JSU has a 5.89 ERA, though Kevin Perez (2-1, 3.38) and Garth Cahill (2.18 in nine appearances) have been solid. Valley is at 9.56, having only once held an opponent to fewer than eight runs. Aaron Barkley has the lone win and a 1.50 ERA in six innings of work.
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.