PERKINSTON — Mississippi Gulf Coast's baseball program will be sending four more players to the Next Level after a signing ceremony held Monday.
Canaan Ray has received an appointment to the Air Force Academy, where he will play baseball for the Falcons. Dawson Flowers will pitch at Northwestern State after signing a scholarship there, and Noah Blythe is headed to Eastern Kentucky. Luke Welborn will play for Flagler College.
"We've got four more guys to sign, which this year has been really tough to get that opportunity," Gulf Coast coach Wes Thigpen said. "For these guys, getting that opportunity is really special. Not only have they signed, but I think they've found the right fit where they're going to be happy at the next level."
CANAAN RAY, AIR FORCE
Ray, an outfielder from Poplarville, gets a unique opportunity to go play at a military academy. All cadets are on full scholarships there with the goal of receiving a commission as an officer in the Air Force and a commitment to serve after graduation.
"I feel like I've been called to do something bigger than just ball or just school," he said. "At the Air Force Academy, there's the whole military aspect, so I'll get to serve others and serve my country and get to play a little ball, too."
Air Force plays in the Mountain West Conference, with retired major Mike Kazlausky having been at the helm since 2011. The Falcons are 17-18 this season.
Ray will leave with four years of eligibility because of COVID's effect on his two seasons, having put in work at Perk to get in this position.
"Coming out of high school, I was really underdeveloped. I've learned a lot here and worked on my body a little bit. I found my identity and it's helped give me some time to make the choice I want to."
Ray has a .352 career average for Gulf Coast with three home runs and 28 RBI in 44 games.
"He's the epitome of toughness," Thigpen said. "He's one of those kids you love to coach because he gets after it every day. I don't know if we'll ever have this cool of a story with a kid going to the Air Force Academy, so it's really special to watch that journey."
DAWSON FLOWERS, NORTHWESTERN STATE
Flowers, a right-handed pitcher from Brookhaven, will head to Louisiana to play at Northwestern State.
"What they have over there is a bunch of blue-collar guys who like to get after it," he said, "and I feel like that fit best with what I like to do."
Flowers not only has played for the Bulldogs here, he's played like a bulldog. He's got a 4-4 record with a 4.04 ERA in 17 games over two seasons. He's struck out 67 batters in 69 innings.
"Being here with Coach Thig, he's really good and likes to get after everybody and that just helped elevate everything I have," he said. "He's really worked with me a lot to refine my stuff and get everything where it needs to be."
Northwestern State plays in the Southland Conference. The Demons are 22-20 and fifth in the league this season, the fourth under coach Bobby Barbier.
"Dawson's kind of the epitome of what we're looking for as a competitor who gets after it every day," Thigpen said. "You know exactly what you're going to get every time he steps on the mound."
NOAH BLYTHE, EASTERN KENTUCKY
Blythe, an outfielder from Lexington, Ky., redshirted last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. He put in the time and effort to bulk up in the past couple of years.
"I came here out of high school maybe a little underdeveloped, so JUCO may have been the best route for me," he said. "The coaches definitely put me through a lot that helped me elevate my game to the next level, and I can't thank them enough for that."
He's headed to EKU, which plays in the Ohio Valley Conference. The Colonels, coached by former South Alabama assistant Chris Prothro in his first season in Richmond.
"Going back home is definitely a big thing," Thigpen said. "Being 10 hours away from home was good these two years, but I'm kinda ready to get back closer to home. I'm ready to enjoy some baseball up there close to family and friends."
Blythe has six home runs and 18 RBI in 26 games this year.
"It's kind of a weird journey for him having to sit out his first year," Thigpen said. "He's played a lot of different positions for us, coming here as a middle infielder, starting some games at third and now he's playing in the outfield. He's got a lot more pop in his bat than we expected, and he's a competitive kid it's been fun to coach."
LUKE WELBORN, FLAGLER
Welborn is headed to St. Augustine, Florida, to play for Flagler College. The Saints play in the Peach Belt Conference, where they have finished a 16-16 record in the league this year.
"I knew it was somewhere I could play right off the bat, and they're a really good Division II program so I wanted to get out and compete with them for a championship," he said.
The first baseman got himself back on the baseball map after a tough break in Walnut Grove, Ga.
"In high school, I broke my leg my senior year, so coming here really helped me develop back to the player I was able to be," said Welborn.
Welborn has hit .327 at Gulf Coast and has seven home runs this year. He's driven in 36 runs in 51 games at Perk.
"We thought he'd be more of a pitcher when he got here, but he's developed as a hitter," Thigpen said. "He's got a really good understanding of the strike zone, and he's ended up hitting seven home runs for us. It's been exciting to watch his development."
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