The Delta State Statesmen took the hard road to the Gulf South Conference Baseball Tournament championship while their coach, Mike Kinnison (standing, far left), pulled double duty.

Delta State’s Mike Kinnison has coached a lot of doubleheaders in his time – but nothing quite like this week when he had double duty in addition to doubleheaders

Tuesday, Kinnison’s Delta State baseball team swept two games to claim the school’s 15th Gulf South Conference championship at Oxford, Ala. That was after Kinnison, also Delta State’s athletic director, Monday announced the hiring of a new men’s basketball coach, Mike Nienaber, who comes to Delta State from Christian Brothers University. Nienaber will be introduced at a news conference Thursday morning.

Delta State had to win six games in five days – all against strong competition – to win the baseball crown. Meanwhile, all the while, the coach was finishing up hiring a basketball coach.

Rick Cleveland

Tired yet, Mike?

“It’s been a busy time, but it’s all good stuff,” Kinnison said Wednesday morning.

“There have been a lot of late night phone conversations, a lot of split days,” he added.

That’s been the case all baseball season for Kinnison, who added the duties of athletic director back in November. At Delta State it’s not unusual to see the athletic director mowing the baseball field or pitching batting practice.

“Most of the mornings I’ve been fully committed to the athletic director duties,” he said. “In the afternoon, I flip the switch and go to baseball. Thankfully, I have a great athletic administration staff that handles a lot of details and covers me well and I’ve got two great assistant coaches in baseball that make this all possible.”

Much of Kinnison’s legwork in finding a basketball coach was done long before this past week.

Mike Nienaber is the new men’s head basketball coach at Delta State.

“I’ve long been a Delta State sports fan, all sports,” Kinnison said. “I go to all the games I can get to. Christian Brothers is in our conference, so I’ve seen Mike Nienaber’s teams play. I’ve admired him as a fellow coach. He has always impressed me with his organization and discipline. His teams play really hard and that’s the No. 1 way that I evaluate coaches. Plus, I know he is a good person. He’s just a good fit for Delta State.”

At first glance, the 63-year-old Nienaber appears a basketball version of the 64-year-old Kinnison. He is a 36-year head coaching veteran with 593 career victories, who has already been Coach of the Year in the Gulf South Conference three times. In 2014, Nienaber’s CBU team, using its Princeton-style offense, defeated Memphis in an exhibition game at Fed Ex Forum. In 2009, Christian Brothers won the NCAA South Regional championship and advanced to the Division II Elite Eight.

Obviously, the guy can coach. His reputation is that of a coach who can do much with little.

Meanwhile, Kinnison, the athletic director, should give Kinnison, the baseball coach, a raise.

The 2019 Statesmen returned only one everyday starter from last year’s team. And now here they are, conference champions with a 39-12 record and one victory short of achieving Kinnison’s 15th 40-victory season at DSU.

Mike Kinnison and his Delta State Statesmen were hanging on every pitch Tuesday.

Delta State defeated No. 6 Valdosta State in the conference tournament’s first round game, but then dropped a 10-3 decision to West Georgia in the second round. That meant the Statesmen would have to come through the losers’ bracket and win four straight games in three days. They did it.

“It really challenged our pitching staff,” Kinnison said. “I couldn’t have been more proud of those guys.”

Delta State had to defeat Valdosta State 7-6 earlier Tuesday to get to the championship game against No. 3 ranked West Florida Tuesday evening.

Both Delta State and West Florida came back with their No. 1 pitchers for that one, and DSU sophomore Hunter Riggins prevailed with a two-hit shutout. Riggins, the tournament MVP, had thrown seven innings of shutout baseball against Valdosta in the tournament’s first game.

Now then, Delta State must wait until Sunday night to learn its NCAA Tournament fate. The Statesmen could well host a regional after what they accomplished at Oxford.

The baseball coach and the athletic director anxiously await the pairings.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.