CLEVELAND – Delta State closed out another banner regular baseball season Sunday afternoon with a 2-0 victory over suddenly competitive in-state rival Mississippi College. The Statesmen, who will host the Gulf South Conference tournament beginning Saturday, finished the season with a 38-8 record.
That’s a winning percentage of .826, which is better than DSU coach Mike Kinnison’s career winning percentage – and that’s saying something, considering that Kinnison’s 21 previous Statesmen teams have won 75.6 percent of their games.
Two things are guaranteed in the Mississippi Delta: a hot muggy summer that follows a successful Delta State baseball spring.
What we learned this weekend is that Mississippi College, which recently made the move back to Division II from Division III, has made huge strides under third-year coach Jeremy Haworth. Haworth took over a team that finished 12-34 in 2015. His first MC team finished 17-30, followed by 20-28 and now 29-15. The Choctaws, who split a doubleheader with Delta State on Saturday, finished 18-10 in the always tough Gulf South, and will be the No. 4 seed this weekend.
We’ll get back to Mississippi College, but first we need to examine Delta State, which won the Gulf South regular season title for the 11th time under Kinnison. Asked Sunday to compare this spring’s team to his past editions, Kinnison said, “Offensively, this is probably the best we’ve been. Defensively, we’ve been plenty good. We might not have the overall arm strength of some of past teams, but these guys have done a good job. This is definitely one of our better teams.”
Statistics bear that out. Led by last year’s Division II National Player of the Year Zack Shannon, the Statesmen hit .334 as a team. That’s not a misprint: .334 as a team. They have hit 64 home runs in 46 games, led by Shannon, who has hit a school record 28 homers to go with a .434 batting average and a staggering 82 RBI in 44 games.
“I’ve never had a hitter have a season like Zack is having and I probably never will again,” Kinnison said. “What makes it so amazing is that opponents know all about him and rarely give him a pitch to hit. He’s not a big swing and miss guy either. For a guy who has hit for so much power, he rarely strikes out (only 22 strikeouts, compared to 28 home runs). That’s pretty much unheard of.”
In two seasons Shannon, a Cincinnati native who originally committed to play at Ohio State, has hit 47 home runs.
He’s got plenty of help. Second baseman Emil Ellis of Ridgeland hits .404. Right fielder Clay Casey, who hits behind Shannon in the batting order, is hitting .351 with 15 home runs and 62 RBI.
The Statesmen do not lack for experience. Eight of the nine batters in the lineup Sunday were seniors.
Sunday was Senior Day at Delta State and a whopping 16 seniors were honored. But don’t think that just because more than half the roster is graduating, DSU necessarily will fall off its baseball mountain next spring. There was similar turnover before the 2017 season when the Statesmen finished 45-13, won a regional and advanced to the D-II College World Series.
How to explain DSU’s success under Kinnison?
Shannon gave it a try.
“That man hates to lose,” Shannon said.
The reporter nodded.
“No, you don’t understand, (Kinnison) really despises losing,” Shannon said. “There’s a difference between not liking to lose or hating to lose and the way he is. That old saying that the sun comes up tomorrow? Kinnison doesn’t believe that. If we lose, the sun doesn’t necessarily come up for him. He demands perfection.”
Mississippi College apparently has a coach with a similar outlook.
Haworth, who came to MC from Ouachita Baptist, is a demanding coach, proud of the progress his program has made.
“We had three dogfights with Delta State this weekend,” Haworth said. “We only got one of them but we should have gotten two and we were in all three. They are like Goliath right now and we are kind of David, but at least we’re in the fight now.”
The Gulf South Conference Tournament has an eight-team format, split into two divisions with each team playing the other three teams in its division in games Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Then the two teams with the best records will play a championship game on Tuesday. DSU and Mississippi College will play one another again on Monday. We should not be surprised if that game determines who plays for the league championship on Tuesday.