PERKINSTON — It might be Wes Thigpen's first season as Mississippi Gulf Coast baseball coach, but he's got his sights set high.
The Bulldogs are set to open the season Wednesday in Chalmette against Nunez, and the home opener will be Thursday when Baton Rouge is at Ken "Curly" Farris Field for a doubleheader that starts at 2 p.m.
"We have high expectations," Thigpen said. "We have a lot of experience on the pitcher's mound. There's not much coming back offensively. There's a few guys with experience, but we feel good about the offense we're gonna run. I think this team will be anchored down by the veteran pitching staff."
Gulf Coast finished 2019 in the Region 23 Tournament with a 29-18 record, and when Rodney Batts left to take over the program at Delta State, his alma mater, Thigpen entered the picture.
Two of the reasons the Bulldogs wound up in the regional last year were Dawson Hall (So., East Central, Hurley) and Tyler Hoffman (So., Mobile Christian, Mobile Ala.). Hall went 9-1 with a 2.81 ERA as a freshman, and he's committed to Southern Illinois.
"Bubba Hall had a really good year last year, threw a lot of strikes," Thigpen said. "We have even higher expectations for him this year. He's developed a good breaking, as well as a changeup, which is going to help him go deeper in games. He's a strike-thrower who attacks hitters, and his fastball really survives."
Hoffman, who has signed with Tulane, has seen his fastball velocity spike to 91-94 mph, and his breaking ball is sharp. He looks to improve on a 5-4 record with a 5.43 ERA.
The other two conference starters will be Antoine Harris (Fr., Chalmette, Chalmette, La.), who was picked by the Twins in the 34th round of last year's MLB Draft, and redshirt-freshman Hayden Robb (Fr., Vancleave, Vancleave). Harris has a special arm, and Robb has added a good changeup to his go-to fastball.
Justin Lockey (So., Long Beach, Long Beach) and Darby Gilbert (So., Pascagoula, Pascagoula) bring experience to the bullpen. Lockey went 4-1 with a 2.70 ERA last year, and he didn't allow an earned run his last 12 outings. Gilbert had 41 strikeouts in 26 innings.
Beckett White (Fr., Gulfport, Gulfport) and Matthew DeLano (Fr., Biloxi, Biloxi) are potential closer candidates. Dawson Flowers will also come out of the bullpen and could be used as a spot starter in busy weeks.
"On the mound, you're going to see guys attack and throw strikes, and just dare guys to get hits off of them," Thigpen said. "We're going to go for the strikeout when it's there, but we're going to attack the strike zone and make people beat us."
There are five catchers in the mix behind the plate. Tucker Thomas (So., Biloxi, Biloxi) is a transfer who has high offensive upside. Louis Morgan (So., East Central, Hurley) and Garrett Canon (So., Hernando, Hernando) return, with Morgan known for his bat and Canon for his defense. White might see action at catcher depending on his pitching load.
Nick Sims (So., New Hope, New Hope), who batted .302 last year, and Dawson Walters (Fr., Tri-County Academy, Flora) will share time at shortstop, with Alec Hardy (Fr., Stone, Wiggins) bringing steady play to second.
Cameron Cotten (So., George County, Lucedale) may see action at first base as well as designated hitter, with Mason Prentiss (So., Greene County, Leakesville) and Luke Welborn (Fr., Locust Grove, Locust Grove, Ga.) potential first basemen. Welborn will also pitch, as will Evan Keith, who will primarily man third base along with White and Ethan Coleman (Fr., George County, Lucedale).
Sparkplug Canaan Ray (Fr., Poplarville, Poplarville) is expected to roam center field, with Spencer and P.J. Harrison (Fr., Harrison Central, Gulfport) sharing time in right. Jared Tribett (Fr., Lumberton, Lumberton) and Ryan Jackson (So., Ridgeland, Ridgeland) are battling in left field.
"We're going to create an offense no matter what is going on," Thigpen said. "We're going to steal a lot of bags, we're going to hit-and-run, we're going to put a competitive, fast brand of baseball on the field. We want to put constant pressure on the defense."
Thigpen says scouts are telling him it's going to be a strong year for pitching in the MACJC, with mid-90s arms all over the league. Northwest, Hinds, Pearl River and Jones all have steady arms, with the South teams bringing back a little more offense than the ones in the North.
He says his coaching staff of Cody Livingston, Chase Scott and Jonathan Parker are relentless workers. Thigpen already trusts them with everything to help mold this Bulldogs squad.
"It's been a great experience," he said. "It's a good group, a really talented and deep group. We've just got to figure out how it all fits together."
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