POPLARVILLE, Miss. — Every new season brings new challenges, new opportunities and of course new excitement. At Pearl River, every spring also brings a new set expectations and aspirations. As the Wildcats lace up their cleats ahead of Sunday's 2020 season opener, the latest version of the Wildcats are rather tunnel visioned on one objective: Getting back to Enid, Oklahoma, for the NJCAA D-II World Series.
"Last year's group had a lot of success for our program and continued to raise the bar. With the bar raising, the expectations continue to rise. That's what this group has to answer," Pearl River coach Michael Avalon said. "We have a little bit of a bad taste in our mouth. We loved getting to the World Series and understand how tough that is, but I think this sophomore group would love to get back and improve our showing while we're there. Ultimately, our goal every year will be to win a national championship and that's what this group is hungry to do."
The Wildcats will head into the 2020 season with a different roster from the '19 Wildcats who led the MACJC in home runs. But where the Wildcats might not hit quite as many home runs, Avalon believes the roster has been replenished with ample athleticism and both offensive and positional versatility.
"It wouldn't surprise me if we still put up good power numbers. To say we'll lead the conference and be second in the nation again is tough to replicate, but power and physicality is definitely one of our strengths," Avalon said. "When you talk about a strength, I think our versatility is an obvious strength of ours when you look at so many guys who can play multiple positions. Where we do have a lack of numbers, our athleticism allows us to balance that out a bit. All of our infielders can play all four positions. Our outfielders can play all three. And we have a lot of pitchers who are position players who can help us in dual roles.
"Athletically, we should be able to get around the bases a little better. I think we'll have a chance to steal more bases than we've stolen, which we like. One of our strengths offensively is still going to be our power."
Going down the lineup, Avalon believes the Wildcats have playable depth at each position.
"Catcher wise we have two guys behind the plate who will split playing time, especially early in the season," Avalon said. "If one guy separates himself down the stretch we'll obviously go with the best guy in crunch time. Britt has had a much better sophomore year so far and Graham, after a tough fall, has been really good this spring.
"Defensively, we're as good as we've been behind the plate. No question."
First base options could bleed over to other spots on the field, like third base and left field, plus designated hitter.
Wake Forest transfer Michael Wein (Alpharetta, Ga.; King's Ridge Christian) is the favorite to grab the first base job.
"We expect him to be a middle-of-the-order bat," Avalon said. "He has tremendous power from both sides of the plate so we expect him in the middle of our lineup."
Sophomore Kasey Donaldson (Gulfport; West Harrison) was second on the team last year with 14 homers and has been PRCC's most consistent hitter this fall and spring. When Donaldson doesn't suit up at first, the Southeastern Louisiana signee can play left field or slide into the designated hitter spot.
Other DH options include redshirt freshman Trey Hobgood (Columbia) and freshman Von Siebert (Mobile, Ala.; Daphne). Both possess big-time power potential. Although Siebert is returning from injury, Hobgood has already flashed his strength during intrasquads.
"He hit one homer the other day that hit a windshield," Avalon said of Hobgood.
The Wildcats' double-play tandem may be the only positions Avalon can go ahead and write on his lineup card in Sharpie.
Freshman Taylor Woodcock (Pass Christian; West Harrison) enters the season as the favorite to get the majority of the reps at tsecond base, while Auburn signee Bryson Ware (Gluckstadt; Germantown) has a stranglehold on shortstop.
"Taylor should be a very dynamic player for us," Avalon said. "He's solid defensively and while he's smaller in stature he should provide some pop."
Ware signed with Auburn over several other SEC suitors before ever suiting up for PRCC in an official game. Thanks to a strong fall, Ware has also seen substantial jump in his draft stock. Perfect Game recently ranked Ware as the No. 9 JUCO prospect for the 2020 draft. Avalon considers him a near five-tool player.
"He's very athletic. He'll be very explosive offensively," Avalon said. "He should hit with power and has the ability to run the bases. He'll most likely hit leadoff, but could also hit third or fourth."
The frontrunner to handle the hot corner is redshirt freshman Dalton Cummins (Seminary). Although the 6-foot-2 infielder missed all of last season due to injury, the year away from the diamond may have been a blessing in disguise.
"I think that year has really helped him mature and develop," Avalon said. "The biggest thing about Cummins is we just trust him. That's why he's going to have to be in the lineup. He's one of our better defenders. Right now we feel most comfortable with him at third base."
Avalon added Cummins could hit between fifth and seventh in the order.
"He's quiet but very consistent and should develop a little more power as the season goes on."
Landon Harper (Lauderdale; Northeast Lauderdale) could play anywhere on the infield.
"He's just that good defensively," Avalon said.
Like the infield, outfield presents plenty of options and flexibility with several likely platoons.
"Kris Jones is a very athletic player for us and brings a different dynamic into the lineup. He'll be a very good defender," Avalon said, adding that Riley will also battle for at-bats.
Both center field and right field will also see some rotation, with freshman Nick Skaggs (Biloxi) and Southern Miss signee Reece Ewing (Mobile, Ala.; Faith Academy) splitting reps. Ewing returns to PRCC after hitting 11 homers with a .300 average a year ago. When he's not playing center, he'll likely be in right. Avalon said the slugger could also see time in the leadoff spot.
"He has done a really good job in the spring at getting on base and will also hit with some power," Avalon said.
Skaggs adds a rare athleticism to the outfield that's intriguing to the Wildcat staff.
"Nick has shown big-time defensive ability in center," Avalon said. "He's proven himself as our best defender in the outfield. He also brings a lot of speed to the lineup and has a toughness that we like."
Jones could also get reps in center field.
Ewing, Skaggs and Eric Newsom (Madison; Germantown) will all platoon in right field.
"Eric's a bit more of a power hitter than Nick, so he could add a different look in right," Avalon said.
ON THE MOUND
Avalon believes the Wildcats have an all-time group on the mound, which says something considering PRCC's pitchers a year ago combined for a 3.82 staff ERA with 431 strikeouts in 436 innings.
"I think we're as talented there as maybe we've ever been on the mound," Avalon said.
Perhaps PRCC's biggest question going into Sunday's opener will be who starts for the Wildcats.
"It's not a bad question to have, but who are going to be the four guys who step up and lead our rotation because we have several guys we like," he said. "We're looking for someone to separate themselves there."
The Wildcats believe they have a number of options for the four spots: Jacob Scherer (Mandeville, La.; St. Paul's), Leif Moore (Biloxi; St. Martin), Reid Reynolds (Heidelberg; Northeast Jones), Louisiana Tech signee Cade Hodges (Brookhaven; Loyd Star), Southeastern Louisiana signee Trace McNabb (Foxworth; West Marion), Landon Gartman (Bogue Chitto; Enterprise) and even Evan Bynum (Soso; West Jones).
"Trace has been the most impressive of our potential starters," Avalon said. "He has shown the most improvement from a guy going from his freshman to sophomore years that I've seen."
Moore has drawn some comparisons to South Alabama signee and PRCC workhorse Miles Smith.
"He had a stellar high school career," Avalon said. "The expectation for him is to be one of our four starters. His stuff is good.
"His pitchability has to improve."
Reynolds was one of PRCC's more reliable arms in 2019, posting a 5-1 record with a 2.87 ERA. Although he's currently working his way back from a minor injury, the right-hander will settle into a rotation spot.
"His experience is going to be very important. I think he pitched the most innings for us in the World Series," Avalon said. "Anytime you bring a guy back who has that kind of experience, you know it's going to help him but you hope it also helps the others around him."
Bynum is another returner who will play a big role for PRCC, whether it's in the rotation or out of the pen.
"He's a guy who continues to impress. He's kind of my safety blanket out of the pen; kind of that first guy I go to because you know he'll come in and throw strikes," Avalon said. "Don't be surprised if he comes in and starts some games because he works. The most important thing about him is you trust him out of the pen and that's invaluable in a staff."
A newcomer PRCC's staff is increasingly excited about is Scherer. At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, the right-hander will add some power to the rotation.
"He's a strike thrower with good stuff," Avalon said. "He should throw a lot of innings for us and be a guy who, if we defend behind him, he should win a lot of ballgames for us."
Hodges is another intriguing option for Avalon. He was limited a year ago due to a prep injury but should be a big boost for the Wildcat staff in '20.
"He's a guy with a lot of upside," Avalon said. "His stuff is really good. He's continuing to get his feel back from surgery. He has shown flashes and he has the ability to be one of our four starters."
Gartman has worked his way into starting consideration, Avalon said.
"He has had a solid fall and spring for us," he said. "He'll compete for the starting rotation but at worst will be a long relief guy for us."
Avalon called Harper a "darkhorse" to earn starts.
Avalon feels the Wildcats are especially deep in the pen.
Starting from the back, PRCC has Mississippi State signee Kole Alford (McComb; North Pike), Louisiana-Monroe signee Reid Golemon (Moselle; South Jones) and freshman Shelby Terrell (Foxworth; West Marion) who will all share closer responsibilities.
"If we can get to the back end of our bullpen with a lead we're going to feel good about our chances," Avalon said.
Alford, like Ware, signed with an SEC program before every appearing in a PRCC uniform. He has also popped up on draft watch lists; Perfect Game ranks him as the 33rd best JUCO prospect.
"Alford has one of the most electric arms that I have had the privilege to coach," Avalon said. "He'll be a guy who closes for us and can get six to nine outs. His stuff is really good. What's been most impressive is his consistency and command."
Golemon was a fireman in a lot of ways for PRCC last season, routinely getting PRCC out of trouble while eating innings. He finished his freshman season with a 4.63 ERA with 20 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings of work.
"He has made another jump this year," Avalon said. "His stuff has been up."
Terrell has been PRCC's most consistent freshman reliever up to this point.
"He's a guy who we could ask to start, but we'd like to keep him in the pen," Avalon said. "We think his stuff is better in relief, so we'd like to get three to six to nine outs of him. He could also potentially be a closer for us."
Skaggs boasts a live arm with good stuff and could see short relief stints. Baxley is coming back from injury and should eat some innings.
"I think the year really helped him mature mentally and physically," Avalon said. "He's still continuing to regain his feel back on the mound but his stuff has a chance to play and we expect him to be a middle reliever for us."
After changing his arm slot during the preseason, Avalon believes Dean can also provide innings out of the pen.
Donaldson and Ewing will also provide situational innings for PRCC.
Following PRCC's season, Avalon's assistants were hired away by four-year programs. Drew LaBounty was named a volunteer assistant at Arkansas State, while Anthony Izzio joined Tulane's staff.
The moves opened up opportunities for Avalon to build a new staff at PRCC so during the summer he brought in Slater Lott from Delta State, Brandon Pennington from Paris Junior College and Max Bartlett from Starkville Academy. Lott now serves as hitting coach and recruiting coordinator, with Pennington handling the pitchers and Bartlett serving as a volunteer assistant and camp coordinator. Additionally, Avalon elevated former player Kyle Tynes to be a student coach.
After a semester of experience working with one another, Avalon is glad to see how his staff has melded together.
"Anytime you lose basically your entire staff there's some nervousness that goes on as the head coach. After being with Slater, Brandon, Max and Kyle, everything works out for a reason and God's got a plan for you. I think these young men being in our program are the right fit for us," Avalon said. "Obviously we'll miss Coach Izzio and Coach LaBounty and appreciate all they did for us, but I've been real impressed with their work ethic, passion and belief in our program."
The Wildcats open the season on Sunday, Feb. 16 against Bevill State at Dub Herring Park. First pitch for the doubleheader is set for 1 p.m.
The Wildcats won't open MACJC play until Saturday, March 14 at Northeast and will play their first home conference doubleheader against Copiah-Lincoln on Wednesday, April 18.
Former Pearl River flame-thrower Colby White will be on hand Sunday to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. A two-time All-MACJC selection, White starred at Mississippi State before being selected in the sixth round of the 2019 MLB Draft by the Tampa Bay Rays. White will sign autographs for fans during the doubleheader.
All home games will be played at The Dub, which for the second straight winter is undergoing major upgrades. A year ago, PRCC added a turf infield, 200 chairback seats and two luxury boxes flanking a new press box and broadcast booth. This year, the Wildcats are adding 100 chairback seats down each baseline for a total of 400 spacious maroon. The new seats will be covered by two canopies to protect fans from the South Mississippi sun. The team also added new berms that will be flush against both dugouts and provide additional seating for fans and play areas for children.
HOW TO TUNE IN
All home events are broadcast on PRCCAthletics.com and PRCCMedia.com. Anyone who has an Amazon Fire or Roku device can stream PRCC broadcasts by downloading the "Pearl River CC" Channel from the app store. Home games and select road contests can also be heard on WRJW 1320 AM, WRJWRadio.com or by downloading the WRJW app.