PERKINSTON — Through all the fits and starts of the unique circumstances of 2020 and the month-plus of 2021 so far, Mississippi Gulf Coast baseball coach Wes Thigpen hasn't taken his eyes off the prize.
"We always have high expectations," he said. "We want to bring a championship here, and we have a team that's anchored by some experience on the mound. We're replacing a good bit of position players, but so far during intrasquad games we've swung the bats really well."
The Bulldogs got shut down 14 games into the 2020 season, and they've been practicing in the fall and spring with COVID hovering over all matters. They're scheduled to open the season Saturday when Pearl River visits Ken "Curly" Farris Field. First pitch in the non-conference doubleheader is scheduled for 2 p.m., although weather may alter those plans.
To keep attendance within the governor's COVID-19 restrictions, no tickets are available for the general public. Gulf Coast home games will be streamed at http://mgcccbulldogs.com/stream, and you can check for visiting streams on the Gulf Coast website at https://mgcccbulldogs.com/sports/bsb/2020-21/schedule.
The Bulldogs' pitching staff will be led by Hayden Robb (Fr., Vancleave/Vancleave). He's classified as a freshman even though he's in his third year at Perk. He lost the 2019 season to Tommy John surgery and last year to the pandemic. He's signed to play at Southeastern Louisiana next season after posting a 3-0 record with a 2.57 ERA last year.
"He's a tough competitor who's been in the big moments before," Thigpen said. "We're expecting him to be one of our starters along with Dawson Flowers, who threw some very valuable innings for us last year."
Flowers (Fr., Brookhaven/Brookhaven Academy) struck out 11 in five innings last year. Antoine Harris (Fr., Chalmette La./Chalmette), who was drafted by the Twins in 2019, and Drake Henderson (Fr., Sand Hill/Greene County) are also penciled in as starters.
As is usually the case, the bullpen will be developed over the course of the season. Chance Forbes (So., Columbia/Columbia Academy), Evan Keith (So., Vancleave/Vancleave) and Matthew DeLano (Fr., Biloxi/Biloxi) are among the candidates for closer.
"We're still evaluating," Thigpen said. "That's probably the biggest question for us, is who's going to take the ball and get the last three outs of the game. It'll probably be by committee, but we have a couple guys in mind."
The biggest bat coming back belongs to Cameron Cotten (So., Lucedale/George County), who was leading the team with five home runs in 13 games. He's expected to be the designated hitter.
"He's come out right where he left off last year," Thigpen said. "He'll be a mainstay in the middle of the lineup. Tucker Thomas has had a great fall and spring. He led our team in hitting in the fall, and he's really lit it up this spring. Those two guys in the middle of the order, hopefully, they can drive in a lot of runs and produce a lot for us."
Thomas (So., Biloxi/Biloxi) will be the primary catcher, and he was tied for the team lead with 10 RBI in 14 games last year. Connor Holliman (Fr., Gulfport/St. Patrick) is a converted infielder who has been grinding to learn the ropes behind the plate.
Luke Welborn (Fr., Locust Grove Ga./Locust Grove), who hit 342 last year, will be a lefty middle-of-the-order bat. There are four players competing at second base and shortstop. Dawson Walters (Fr., Flora/Tri-County Academy) and Brendan McCauley (Fr., Gulfport/Harrison Central) are at shortstop and could see action at second, where Alec Hardy (Fr., Wiggins/Stone) and Ethan Coleman (Fr., Lucedale/George County) are lined up for a great competition.
Hardy could also play third, along with Noah Blythe (Fr., Lexington Ky./Tates Creek) and Alex McWhorter (Fr., Mobile Ala./Faith Academy).
In the outfield, Canaan Ray (Fr., Poplarville/Poplarville) led off last year and hit .354. Josh Cary (Fr., Petal/Petal) is a similar player and aggressive baserunner. P.J. Harrison (Fr., Gulfport/Harrison Central) could play some outfield in addition to working on the mound, as will Henderson. Jared Tribett (Fr., Lumberton/Lumberton) returns out there, and Connor Spencer (Fr., Hernando/Hernando) is coming back from injury.
This year's schedule will be unique. The MACCC is playing only in-state competition, with the first seven dates on the schedule against division opponents. They won't count in the standings but will get teams tuned up for a statewide round-robin conference slate.
"It's going to be a challenge. Every game will be a conference game, and there's no easing into things," Thigpen said. "Right out of the gate, you're playing the South which is loaded with talent. We'll play everybody down here twice, but we're ready for the challenge."
Thigpen said there could be some strategy to things like who pitches in the first non-conference games against South opponents so as not to show your hand for when they really count. But he said he believe in winning every game you play and will lean in that direction.
The MACCC is a brutal conference top to bottom, and this year figures to be even more competitive. Northwest Mississippi, Pearl River, Jones, Hinds and Meridian will be the teams to beat, but any team can beat you in either game of a doubleheader.
"Everybody has a lot of talent returning," he said. "There's gonna be a lot of blows exchanged this year. I don't know if anybody is going to run away with anything given how many times we'll play against each other."
For more information on MGCCC's 10 intercollegiate athletic teams, follow @MGCCCBulldogs on Twitter and MGCCCBulldogs on Facebook, and go to mgcccbulldogs.com.
By: Don Hammack
Sports Information Director
Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College