Updated: Dec 2, 2020
81 NCAA Tournament appearances. 49 conference titles. 17 College World Series appearances. 134 major leaguers. The numbers don’t lie. The state of Mississippi has established itself as a national power in college baseball.
Sure, Mississippi may have achieved national recognition because of the football talent to come out of its colleges; Archie and Eli Manning, Michael Oher, Jerry Rice, and Jackie Slater to name a few. And yes, the two biggest institutions in the state play in a conference that is most famous for its football prowess. But the results on the diamond speak for themselves; the baseball talent coming out of the state’s six Division I programs is top-notch.
In fact, the case could be made that in recent years baseball has been the state’s more successful sport. Mississippi State is coming off back-to-back College World Series appearances in 2018 and 2019. Southern Miss has won the Conference USA tournament each of the last two seasons. Ole Miss has reached the NCAA Tournament seven straight seasons. Alums of Mississippi schools have been making their pro debuts left and right—Jacob Waugespack, Brent Rooker, and Hunter Renfroe to name a few. And that is just a small slice of the baseball success recently experienced in the state.
"There is no place better to watch college baseball than in Mississippi.” -Jake Mangum, former Mississippi State outfielder
At the end of the 2019 season, Ole Miss was second in average attendance per game (8,911), and Mississippi State a near third (8,586). Southern Miss found its way onto the list at No. 19 (2,997), the first program from a non-power five conference team to be listed. So why do Mississippians love their college sports, especially baseball, so much?
“For me it was just going to games growing up,” remembers Jake Mangum, the SEC’s all-time hits leader, of his first college baseball experiences. “On the weekends in Mississippi, in the fall you’ve got a football weekend in one of the college towns, in the spring you’ve got a baseball weekend in one of the college towns. The beautiful thing about Mississippi is that our biggest sports are our college teams, so you support your college throughout the year, fall, winter, spring...you got year-round sports. There is no place better to watch college baseball than in Mississippi.”
While the native Mississisipian may be biased, his words ring true. Regionals in cities like Oxford, Starkville, and Hattiesburg draw some of the nation’s rowdiest, most enthusiastic crowds.
“The fan bases are so much fun to play in front of in college, it’s exhilarating,” said Mangum. “Southern Miss even. We did a Regional down there; it was an electric weekend. There are passionate fans everywhere, all over the country, but I’ve definitely seen some of the most passionate fans in the state of Mississippi.”
With no professional teams any closer than New Orleans, Florida, or Tennessee, much of the sports focus is on the college teams. That results in passionate crowds and heated rivalries across the state.
One of those rivalries is the in-state battle between Ole Miss and Mississippi State, dubbed the “Egg Bowl” in football. In baseball, the winner of the neutral site contest, typically played at TrustPark in Pearl, earns the Governor’s Cup. As Mangum says, winning that game goes far beyond winning a trophy. It is a matter of bragging rights. “I’d have to say the Governor's Cup games were all close. Luke Alexander’s walk off in 2018 was probably the most memorable,” said Mangum of his favorite memories from the rivalry against the Rebels.
In addition, Mississippi State and Ole Miss also play a weekend series. Because the 2020 SEC schedule will be the same for 2021, Mississippi State will host next season’s weekend series against Ole Miss.
“It was always fun to play Ole Miss,” said Mangum “They’re a great program, always talented, with a great coach in [Mike] Bianco behind them.”
A great coach Bianco is. Following the shortened 2020 campaign, Ole Miss finished the season No. 1 in College Baseball Nation’s national rankings, with Bianco named coach of the year by Collegiate Baseball. He took a team projected to finish fifth in the SEC West to a team ranked in the top 10 of every major poll by the end of the shortened 2020 season.
The Rebels are trending in the same direction this upcoming season, with a lot of depth at the plate. Consistent recruiting efforts by Bianco have brought in young talent to fill voids left behind by starters Tyler Keenan and Anthony Servideo, who went to the professional ranks.
One of the young talents is right-handed pitcher Wes Burton, a freshman who is coming back to Ole Miss for his second season. Burton, a reliever, stood out in Ole Miss’ fall intrasquad games with multiple scoreless innings pitched. Burton is confident that the Rebels have the bats and arms to win the SEC West this year and go even further into the postseason.
“We’re going to swing it really well this year,” said Burton. “We’re going to put up some runs. Honestly, we [the pitchers] are looking forward to facing some outside competition at some point so we don’t have to face all these mashers.”
The Rebels have reached the NCAA Tournament seven straight seasons and are on pace to make it eight in 2021. However, this Rebels team is focused on going further than just the Regionals. This team’s aspirations are focused high on making it to Omaha for the sixth time in program history.
“I know we’re missing two guys from last year, and they played a big part, but the same energy and the same vibe is going to stay around,” said Ben Van Cleve, an infielder who will compete for a starting role in 2021. “It’s just kind of what is built here. This program has a bunch of fun, a bunch of energy, and we hope to keep that rolling all throughout this season.”
"This program has a bunch of fun, a bunch of energy, and we hope to keep that rolling all throughout this season.” -Ben Van Cleve, Ole Miss infielder
Southern Miss completes the trio of “power schools” in the state. A Conference USA school in Hattiesburg, the Golden Eagles established a winning baseball tradition in the 1990s and early 2000s, reaching the NCAA Tournament on 11 occasions between 1990 and 2010. That has continued under head coach Scott Berry, who said he “didn’t change anything about the program” upon taking over 12 years ago. When asked about what first struck him about the level of baseball in the state, he spoke of an American Legion (one of the nation’s top amateur baseball leagues) game in 1990. It was the first game he ever saw in the state.
“I was interviewing for the head coaching job at Meridian Community College, and Coach Palmer and I went and watched an American Legion baseball game that night,” recalls Berry. “There I saw four 90+ mph pitchers, one of them was Jay Powell, who pitched at [Mississippi] State. I went back to Southwest Missouri State and was I telling everyone, ‘I just saw four 90+ mph pitchers in the same game!' It was crazy.”
It is not just talent that comes out of the state. It is the fact that, more so than in other parts of the country, sports fans and college students genuinely care about their baseball teams. As Berry notes, they show up in big ways, whether it be a regular season contest, a conference tournament, or an NCAA Regional.
“We are one of the smallest states in terms of population (2.9 million), but yet Mississippi’s top three D1 baseball programs (Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Southern Miss) are the leaders in total attendance every year over any other state’s top three D1 programs,” said Berry.
This year is special for Southern Miss, as the Golden Eagles will retain four of their eight seniors from last season. All are pitchers. Despite concerns from some programs about playing a full 56-game season, Berry felt it was important that his squad got the opportunity to play as many games as possible prior to the start of conference play. The Golden Eagles will play a full 56 game slate, Berry told College Baseball Nation.
“We’re not going to shy away from a tough schedule, both in conference and non-conference,” said Berry, who has coached at the school since 2000. The Golden Eagles have lived that out and taken down their fair share of power five programs in recent seasons. Southern Miss has ten wins over power five teams in the past three seasons, including a sweep of Mississippi State to start the 2018 season. “We have a saying at Southern Miss: anyone, anywhere, anytime,” emphasized Berry.
“We have a saying at Southern Miss: anyone, anywhere, anytime,” -Scott Berry, Southern Miss head coach
West of Starkville by 96 miles, north of Oxford by 91 and northeast of Hattiesburg by 190, Mississippi Valley State is nestled in Itta Bena, Mississippi, population 2,049. Coverage when it comes to sports, especially baseball, is few and far between. Head coach Aaron Stevens, in his 20th season as a coach for the Delta Devils and his fifth as the head coach, is the first to note that.
“It is different, partially because of the area we’re in,” said Stevens. “We have to do decent across the board just to get some news coverage from our area. But to actually get the big coverage we have to play against a team like Southern Miss or Mississippi State (both are on the schedule for this upcoming season). We have to play those bigger teams so our guys can get seen by the scouts watching on a regular basis and get a chance to get covered by the bigger news outlets.”
Despite this, Stevens has built up a competitive program. One of the challenges Stevens faces on a yearly basis is recruiting. He scours the country looking for top talent to bring to Itta Bena and has done a solid job keeping his program infused with players who have the potential to play professionally. However, he notes that things in the SWAC have changed since his days as a youngster in which he grew up a diehard fan of Jackson State, one of the state’s six D1 programs. Those were the days in which future pro bowlers Jackie Slater and Jerry Rice put HBCU schools on the map.
“I’m from Jackson, and all my family went to Jackson State, so me being at Valley is already a challenge,” said Stevens with a chuckle. “That was my first introduction to college sports, going to Jackson State games. That was like the pros for us. A lot of the guys from the city there would end up going to Jackson State. The way things have changed now, you don't have as many guys from the city to play there. SWAC football, basketball, and even baseball, was different then because they had different athletes. Athletes that were playing in the SWAC when I was growing up are now playing in the SEC. Those athletes don’t get overlooked anymore. We still get great athletes, but it is a different kind of athlete.”
Mississippi Valley State baseball currently has a low budget, and just 4.5 scholarships to offer. By comparison, the majority of power five schools, such as Ole Miss and Mississippi State, have 11.7 scholarships to offer. But because baseball is not a head count sport, Stevens can distribute the scholarship money amongst his 20-man roster. That’s another thing. If you look at a typical D1 college baseball roster, you will find around 40 players listed. That is not the case at Mississippi Valley State, where the resources aren’t there to have a roster of more than 20. At some point, Stevens would like to expand his roster to 22, but for now, he will just have to manage with limited pitching, and be forced to cut players who have already graduated but have remaining eligibility.
Recruiting at the school is not easy, as Stevens notes. But he has managed to nab several top-level players from the JUCO ranks over the years. Interestingly, on the Delta Devils’ 2020 roster, all but two of the players hailed from out of the state, coming from places such as Puerto Rico, Michigan, and Hawaii.
"It takes a special kid to want to come here and play sports." -Aaron Stevens, Mississippi Valley State, head coach
“You have to look for a certain student to even want to come to school here,” said Stevens. “They have to be focused to come to school here. . . It takes a special kid to want to come here and play sports. Every sport has had success, but the last two or three years, we’ve had to settle. We’ve got to get it back to what it used to be.”
With Stevens at the helm, that is certainly in the future for Mississippi Valley State. The Delta Devils have a multitude of two-way players for this upcoming season, though Stevens had not finalized his 2021 roster when he talked with College Baseball Nation on October 14. Despite all of these challenges, Stevens has built quite a program at Mississippi Valley State, and with the right team chemistry, this program can easily emerge as a SWAC title contender this upcoming season.
Mississippi loves its college baseball. Whether it is a top 25 matchup at Dudy Noble Field, a Regional in Hattiesburg, or a SWAC showdown in the valley, at Jackson State or Alcorn State, fans show up to watch their team compete with the best of the best in college baseball. Mississippi is a special place for college sports. Don’t be surprised if a school out of Mississippi claims the College World Series Title come next summer.