POPLARVILLE, Miss. — Opponents change; rosters change; even the facility changes. What hasn't changed for Pearl River baseball during the watch of coach Michael Avalon are expectations.
Three years ago, the Wildcats claimed the MACJC Championship. In 2019 the Wildcats earned the Region XXIII Title and claimed a World Series berth. Ranked No. 5 in the NJCAA, PRCC looked poised for another run in 2020 up until the season was squashed.
This year, the Wildcats head into Wednesday's Opening Day against East Central with the same goal in mind: Enid, Oklahoma and the NJCAA Division II World Series.
"I think we have done a good job of raising the standard here. One of the things that we ask our players is that our expectations are going to be the highest for ourselves," Avalon said. "I think if you work with that standard that you expect the most from yourself then you don't have to worry about the expectations of others. That's something we harp on with our players.
"We like the players that have high expectations for themselves."
The cancelled season stung, for sure, Avalon said, but in some ways he hopes his team grew from the challenges of 2020.
"Well I think one of the biggest things we learned from last year was just an appreciation of the game of baseball. Across the country everyone's season got cut short and for about six months there everybody was just not sure what to do and I know in that time I missed our guys and I missed the game of baseball," he said. "So when the guys got back this August that was something we talked about making the best of each day and that you appreciate the opportunity to come out here and play this game. That's something we've seen in their work ethic and their passion for the game."
Because of last year's cancellation and the NJCAA granting student athletes an extra year of eligibility, teams across the country have rosters comprised of athletes from three different classes. Like other programs, the Wildcats benefitted from the exemption and return eight starters from last year's squad.
"I think our depth is something that's pretty special this year. Obviously across the country there are a lot of players that are stockpiled because there's an extra class. The depth is going to be a difference maker for us we feel like this year," Avalon said. "That's something you don't plan on but that's how it fell this year. We're thankful to have them. They're battle tested and experienced and that's something we're excited about."
On the mound, Avalon likes the group's ability as a whole.
"We're not as experienced as we are at the plate but our talent may be a little better than it was before. I think our pitchers will get better as the year goes on," Avalon said. "Confidence will be important for them. Hopefully they'll have some good things happen early and when they start to get more confident and comfortable you will start to see a difference from them on the mound."
Like most seasons, PRCC boasts plenty of versatility on the mound with guys who can either start or come out of the pen.
Two sure-thing starters are Memphis signee Landon Gartman (Bogue Chitto; Enterprise) and Southeastern Louisiana signee Jacob Scherer (Mandeville, La.; St. Paul's). As freshmen, Scherer struck out 20 in 19 1/3 innings with a 2.33 ERA and Gartman struck out 10 in 6 2/3 innings of work. Sophomore Reid Reynolds (Laurel; Northeast) also returns. In addition to being a key player for PRCC in its 2019 World Series run, Reynolds struck out five with a 1.80 ERA in 5 1/3 innings.
"He's a guy that will be one of our more valuable pieces on the mound just because he can start and he'll be one of the first guys out of the pen to relive," Avalon said of Reynolds. "He's a strike thrower and his stuff has improved."
Freshmen Dakota Lee (Purvis), Sam Hill (Soso; West Jones) and Turner Swistak (Hattiesburg; Oak Grove) will all battle for starter spots as well.
"You have several guys that are competing for those third and fourth spots and I like that because I think it's going to keep them on their toes," Avalon said.
Avalon sees left-handed freshman Byrion Robinson, Landon Harper (Lauderdale; Northeast Lauderdale) and Shelby Terrell (Foxworth; West Marion) anchoring the pen, at least early on, with Harper serving as closer. As freshmen last season, Terrell was unhittable in 7 2/3 innings, striking out seven with a perfect ERA, while Harper struck out five in 6 innings.
Trace McNabb (Foxworth; West Marion) is back to bolster PRCC's arms.
"His experience is invaluable," Avalon said. "He has done a tremendous job setting the example for our staff."
Others who will factor into the pen include newcomers Mason Smith (Laurel; Northeast Jones), Dawson Strong (Pass Christian; St. Stanislaus), Harper Jordan (Hattiesburg; Presbyterian Christian School) and Parker Herrington (Hattiesburg; Oak Grove).
"They are all young guys. This year will be a big year for them just getting the experience of the college game," Avalon said. "Hopefully when they get their opportunities they'll make the best of them."
SLU transfer Landon Rawson (Kosciusko; Central Holmes Academy) will also give opponents a different look out of the pen.
"He'll be a guy that we hope can come out of the pen and command the zone," Avalon said.
Injured during fall ball, Leif Moore (St. Martin) is back from a lights-out freshman campaign but is not expected to pitch due to his ongoing rehabilitation.
IN THE FIELD
Just like on the mound, the Wildcats could send out any number of combinations for a starting lineup.
"I think that really speaks to our depth," Avalon said. "We can go so many different ways."
The last couple of seasons the Wildcats have been among the nation's top power hitting squads. Avalon said he expects the power to remain in 2021, but with perhaps a bit more athleticism throughout the lineup.
"I think that's what we have been known for is our strength and our power offensively," Avalon said. "That's going to be close to the same as it's been. We will still hit the ball out of the park this year but we're excited to be more athletic this year. Hopefully we will get around the bases a little better. We want to create more offense. We don't want to be one dimensional.
"We want to be able to steal bases and be aggressive and that's something we have really worked on. We have a lot of smart baseball players."
Behind the plate may be the most sure-thing on the lineup card, with Alabama signee Graham Crawford (Sumrall) sharing time with newcomer Matt Mercer (Petal); the latter could also see time in left field.
"Crawford has the advantage with the experience he has behind the plate," Avalon said of his SEC-bound catcher, who hit .280 with two homers in nine games a year ago. "Early on we will try to split them 50-50."
Von Siebert (Mobile, Ala.; Daphne) will get the first opportunity at first base. The 6-foot-4 slugger missed most of last season due to rehabbing from injury. Freshmen D.K. Donaldson (Gulfport; West Harrison) and Ryan Burt (Columbus; New Hope) will also vie for time at first.
Returner and Louisiana Tech signee Taylor Woodcock (Gulfport; West Harrison) will be relied on to anchor second base. As a freshman, Woodcock hit .262 with two homers and four doubles. He also finished second on the team with three stolen bases.
His double play partner at short will be freshman John Griffin Bell (Mobile, Ala.; Faith Academy).
"I feel like if you ask the team they would tell you they're kind of the heart and soul of our team," Avalon said. "Those guys each day show up and play hard."
At third will be Dalton Cummins (Seminary). The sure-gloved returner led PRCC with 10 walks a year ago. Southern Miss transfer and College of Charleston signee Austen Izzio (Carriere; Pearl River Central) will also see time at the hot corner and in left field.
Banks Hyde (Columbus; Heritage Academy) will also get reps at shortstop, with Mason Treat (Carriere; Pearl River Central) seeing reserve duty at third and second.
The outfield could end up being different from game to game with so many options for Avalon to choose from.
Dallas Baptist transfer and South Alabama signee Tate Parker (Gulfport; West Harrison) will start in center for the Wildcats.
"He's a guy that we expect to hit in the middle of the order," Avalon said. "He's very good defensively."
Returner Nick Skaggs (Biloxi) played in center last season and will likely slot into right field this season.
"He's a guy that's very, very good defensively and also swung the bat really well as a freshmen," Avalon said of Skaggs, who hit .382 with two homers, 11 RBIs and a team-best 16 runs scored.
Eric Newsom (Madison; Germantown) should see ample time in the corners.
"He had a really good early spring. He started a lot for us in right. He'll also play in left," Avalon said. "That's kind of what our question will be is trying to find the hot hand because we have several guys out there that could start for us."
As a freshman, Newsom hit .286 with a homer and nine RBIs.
In addition to Izzio and Mercer, who could see time in left, Avalon said Kris Jones (Hattiesburg; Oak Grove) and Logan Walters (Petal) should also see playing time.
Anchoring the designated hitter spot will be South Alabama signee and seasoned slugger Kasey Donaldson.
"Kasey Donaldson is going to be our everyday DH like he has the past two years," Avalon said. "It's always good to have a guy in the middle of the order who has had as many big hits over his career as Kasey."
In 2019 and 2020, Donaldson combined to hit .299 with 18 home runs, 56 RBIs and 17 doubles.
Mississippi Association of Community Colleges Conference members will play an all-Mississippi schedule this season. Although Pearl River will play seven doubleheaders to start the season against MACCC opponents, those contests will only count toward PRCC's overall record and not its conference standings. The Wildcats will get underway Wednesday with a home doubleheader against East Central, starting at 2 p.m. PRCC's official conference schedule starts Feb. 27 at Northwest.
"Well one of the things I try to make sure is that we play a competitive non-conference schedule. This year obviously that was taken care of for us. This will be hands down the most competitive non-conference schedule that we've played," Avalon said. "When you look at the rankings that have come out with all the teams in Mississippi that are ranked and then if you break it down into the south division, our conference speaks for itself and its toughness."
Pearl River opens the season ranked No. 7 in the NJCAA.
JUCO Baseball ranked PRCC as the No. 2 team in Division II. Additionally, Perfect Game recently released its Top 25 ranking with the Wildcats slotted at No. 16; PG's ranking combines all of the NJCAA's divisions.
HOW TO TUNE IN
Most games will be broadcast at PRCCMedia.com/Gold but in some instances where multiple teams are at home, PRCC will also have a feed on its auxiliary channel at PRCCMedia.com/Maroon. Fans who have Roku or Amazon Fire devices can also watch the Wildcats on their televisions by downloading the "Pearl River CC" channel from their app store.
Home games will also be broadcast on WRJWRadio.com.
By Patrick Ochs
Pearl River Community College
Director of Marketing & Communications