Mississippi State All American Landon Sims receives congratulations after saving a game in 2021. (Photo By Sarah Triplett)

It’s time to do what Mississippians do best when it comes to college sports. That is, play ball. Baseball.

Defending national champion Mississippi State, NCAA regional champ Ole Miss, and perennial NCAA Tournament participant Southern Miss all begin their seasons Friday with home weekend series. To say the least, expectations are high.

Mississippi State, ranked highly in most preseason polls including No. 4 by D1Baseball, will play host to West Coast baseball powerhouse Long Beach State, ranked No. 24 in the same poll. The Bulldogs and Dirtbags will play single games at 2 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.

At Oxford, Charleston Southern (18-26 last season) of the Big South Conference will visit for single games Friday (4 p.m.), Saturday (2 p.m.) and Sunday (2:30 p.m.).

At Hattiesburg, Southern Miss will play North Alabama (7-40 in 2021) for single games Friday (4 p.m.), Saturday (2 p.m.) and Sunday (1 p.m.).

The 2021 college baseball season ended with State’s All American closer Landon Sims getting the last out in the Bulldogs’ 9-0 championship victory over Vanderbilt in the College World Series at Omaha. State’s 2022 season will open with Sims on the mound at Dudy Noble, shifting roles from lock-down closer to Friday night starter. Sims, who saved so many of All American Will Bednar’s victories last season, will inherit Bednar’s role of front-line starter. 

The Bulldogs will be face a difficult foe. Long Beach won 15 of its last 17 games a year ago and features one of the nation’s best closers of its own. Sophomore Devereaux Harrison finished with a 3-1 record and a team-leading 10 saves last season. He struck out 42 batters in 34 innings and opponents hit just .175 against him.

At Oxford, Ole Miss returns its everyday lineup virtually in tact from a team that hit .288 with 85 home runs in 67 games. Rebel returners include shortstop Jacob Gonzalez who hit a team-leading .355 with 12 home runs and 55 RBI. Also back is first baseman Tim Elko, who gained almost legendary status in Ole Miss baseball annals last season when he played the last couple months with a torn ACL and still led the team with 16 home runs. Kevin Graham (.342, 14 HR, 54 RBI) also returns. 

This weekend’s series will mark the return of former Ole Miss player and assistant coach Marc MacMillan, who begins his second season as Charleston Southern’s head coach.

Southern Miss must replace two of the most productive starting pitchers in school history in Walker Powell and Hunter Stanley — and left-handed relief ace Ryan Och. But Scott Berry returns a deep pitching staff of strong arms and welcomes back most of a batting lineup that hit .275 with 83 home runs to help the Golden Eagles finish second in the Oxford Regional.

Southern Miss apparently will be competing for the last season in Conference USA and the Eagles are the coaches’ preseason pick to win the league.

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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.