PERKINSTON — Last season, Mississippi Gulf Coast went to its first baseball regional in six years and finished third. That success is serving as fuel and a raising of standards in 2019.
"We've got a lot of those guys back, so I hope they have a little bit of a bitter taste in their mouths because we didn't finish the job," Gulf Coast coach Rodney Batts sad. "I hope they're excited and hungry to take it a step further."
The raising of standards is being reflected in a demanding preseason schedule, with the Bulldogs facing a Jefferson College team ranked fifth in the NJCAA Division I ranking and second in all of junior college by Perfect Game. First pitch for the doubleheader opener Saturday is at noon at Ken "Curly" Farris Field. The games will be streamed at https://livestream.com/MGCCCBulldogs/events/8557183.
Gulf Coast, which is ranked No. 14 in the NJCAA Division II poll, will also face Northwest Florida (PG No. 2) and Northern Iowa Area (PG No. 24) before conference play.
"My focus on the schedule was to make it as tough as we could make it this year," Batts said. "Last year we played really well going into conference, but I just didn't feel we were prepared going into conference. Our league is really, really good. I wanted to challenge our team this year."
The league includes Meridian (NJCAA D-2 No. 4) and Pearl River (No. 8 NJCAA D-2/PG No. 6), as well as a slew of other tough outs.
"It's a gauntlet," Batts said. "From top to bottom, it doesn't matter who we play, game day 1 to game day 14, it's a challenge. I've always said it's the best league in the country, and it's only getting better. It's tougher this year. It's going to be a grind and really competitive."
The Bulldogs bring back 13 sophomores from that team, including the NJCAA Division II Player of the Year in Brandon Parker (So., West Harrison/Saucier). The right fielder smashed the school record with 24 home runs, and led the country with 81 RBI while batting .424. Parker reached base 50 percent of the time and slugged .932 with 14 doubles and two triples. He had a pair of three-home run games, one seven-RBI game and three six-RBI games.
"The year he has last year was exceptional and phenomenal," Batts said. "I don't want him to think he's got to do more than that. I just want him to be himself. He's a good player. He can hit, and everybody knows it. He's going to have to be patient. He's going to get pitched a little bit differently this year. He knows that he's going to have to look for different pitches. I want him to relax and play."
Ike Williams (So., St. Martin/St. Martin) roamed center field and batted leadoff last season to the tune of a .315 batting average and .411 on-base percentage. Preston Stringer (So., Stone/Perkinston) is also back, joins the mix out there with Tanner Estill (So., Petal/Petal), a transfer from William Carey, and Dee Hawthorne (Fr., Harrison Central/Gulfport).
The infield is anchored by Alden Davis (So., Pascagoula/Pascagoula), who is moving back to third base after a season at third. He hit eight home runs and drove in 56 runs while batting .384.
"Alden is really good," Batts said. "Hitting right in front of Brandon can be a good thing. Hopefully, he'll see some pitches to hit. He's a tough, tough competitor. To have him and Brandon together right there in the middle of our order, that's a 1-2 punch that can be as good as anybody in the country."
The shortstop figures to eventually be Miller Hancock (So., East Webster/Maben), a transfer from East Mississippi with great hands defensively. He starts the season banged up, with Cullan O'Shea (So., Mary G. Montgomery/Mobile, Ala.) and Nick Sims (Fr., New Hope/New Hope) picking up the slack in the interim. O'Shea, who was second on the team with 10 homers last year, will also play first base.
Bryce Braddock (Fr., New Hope/New Hope) will bring a physical presence to first base, with Matt Inlow (So., Pascagoula/Pascagoula) penciled in to start at catcher. He's a transfer from East Mississippi, and Louis Morgan (Fr., East Central/Hurley) will also see action there.
Kole Kittrell (So., Greene County/State Line) 7-3 with three saves and a 2.55 ERA last season. He began the season in the bullpen and transition to a starting role, where he's expected to be this year.
"He wants the ball as much as we can give it to him," Batts said. "He's a guy last year we used in different spots, as a closer, as a starter. There's still some unknowns with our staff this year. We'll probably use him as a starter at first and kind of see what happens. He'll give us a chance to win whether it's on the front end or the back end."
Dawson Hall (Fr., East Central/Hurley) and Tyler Hoffman (Fr., Mobile Christian/Mobile Ala.) will be starters, with Justin Lockey (Fr., Long Beach/Long Beach) and Ian Landreneau (Fr., John Curtis/River Ridge La.) also in the mix.
Batts will have a pair of returning left-handers to rely on. Truitt Smith (So., Stone/Wiggins) struck out 11 batters in 8.1 innings of work, and Nicholas Hertz (So., St. Stanislaus/Long Beach) had the New York Collegiate Baseball League's lowest ERA last summer. Darby Gilbert (Fr., Pascagoula/Pascagoula) can be a factor if he dials in his big arm.
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