POPLARVILLE – There is good news and bad news where Pearl River Community College baseball is concerned.
The good news? PRCC returns a strong nucleus of sophomores from the 2017 team that was 29-20 overall, finished sixth in the 15-team MACJC and advanced to the semifinal round of the NJCAA Region 23 Tournament
The bad news? The Wildcats won’t sneak up on anybody the way they did last season. However, second-year head coach Michael Avalon likes it that way.
“I think that’s what you want, where there is a respect for your players and your program,” said Avalon. “You want people to come in and say, ‘hey, we’re playing Pearl River today, we’d better be ready.’”
Pearl River overcame some major hurdles last season.
The Wildcats had a new head coach and mostly-new staff, they started the season 0-4, they suffered a slump in late April during which time many players and coaches suffered the mumps and then had to go on the road to Itawamba for the first-round of the MACJC playoffs.
“We overcame some major adversity last season,” Avalon said. “I mean, the state was talking shutting us down when we had the mumps epidemic.
“So it was humbling to see the guys buy in to what we were teaching. I’m thankful that they sped up the process and set the standard. If we can get to the point every season where we’re 18 innings away from the World Series, then that’s where we want to be.”
The Wildcats will build around what is expected to be a deep and talented pitching staff led by sophomore right-handers Colby White (Foxworth) and Drake Nightengale (Sumrall).
White, who has signed with Mississippi State, emerged as the ace of the staff last season, finishing with a 6-3 record, with five saves, an earned-run average of 2.43 and 62 strikeouts in 55 2/3 innings.
Nightengale, who signed with Delta State in November, 2016, was off to a sensational season, with 56 strikeouts in 31 2/3 innings before he suffered a season-ending arm injury. He was granted a medical redshirt and opted to return to PRCC for a third season.
“It’s nice to have two starters of their caliber at the top of our pitching staff,” said Avalon. “But one of the things I’m really excited about is that we have so much more pitching depth than we did a year ago.”
Indeed, Avalon said he expects freshman right-handers Miles Smith (Laurel) and Shemar Page (Raleigh) to start the season in the pitching rotation, and he has a veteran, sophomore lefty Luke Bradley (Bay St. Louis), anchoring the bullpen.
Bradley, who prepped at St. Stanislaus, was 4-0 with three saves and a 2.45 ERA last season.
Offensively and in the field, the Wildcats will build around sophomore first baseman Simon Landry (Ponchatoula, La.), who signed with the University of Houston. Landry smacked 16 home runs and drove in 46 runs last season while batting .301.
The Wildcats will also have experience in the middle of the infield with sophomore transfers Scooter Ginn (Columbia), who played for Southwest Mississippi last season, and Derek Eberly (Blountstown, Fla.), who played for NJCAA Division 1 national champion Chipola (Fla.) last year.
Freshman Wiley Cleland (Columbia) appears set at third base, although his versatility makes him especially valuable.
“Derek is a headsy, knowledgeable player, and Ginn is a kid who’s been in this league and is just a good baseball player,” said Avalon. “Wiley Cleland is somebody in the middle of our order who’s a real good athlete who can do a lot of things.
“The biggest thing offensively is we’ll be strong and athletic. We won’t be real speedy, but we’ll be able to move around the bases and in the field.”
Two of the outfield spots should be taken by redshirt sophomore Bryson Medious (Columbia) and freshman Noah Baron (Hoover, Ala.). Medious came on in the second half of last season to earn a starting spot, batting .266 with a pair of homers and 27 RBIs.
PRCC will also have experience behind the plate in sophomore Logan Walters (Moss Point).
“The catching position is one of the toughest to play defensively, and that’s where his experience is going to show up,” said Avalon.
“Overall, I really like the makeup of this team. There’s a lot of camaraderie and they like playing together.”
Pearl River opens the season at home on Feb. 16 with two games, at 1 p.m. against Southeastern (Iowa) and at 7 p.m. against Elaine Nunez (La.).