After four successful seasons at Delta State, Hunter Riggins of Hernando has been lights-out for Southern Miss this spring. (Photo courtesy Southern Miss)

HATTIESBURG — Hunter Riggins pitched four seasons, including one shortened by COVID, at Delta State. He blew away Division II competition, winning 27 games and losing only 12 for the perennial powerhouse Statesmen.

Still, you had to wonder how Riggins would fare after entering the NCAA transfer portal and moving on to Division I Southern Miss to play his last season of eligibility.

Well, wonder no more.

In four starts for the Golden Eagles, Riggins has treated D-I competition like Little Leaguers. Numbers? He has allowed two earned runs over 26 innings. His earned run average: a miserly 0.69. He has struck out 17 batters, walked but three. His record is 3-1, but it could just as easily be perfect. The one loss came last weekend against formidable Dallas Baptist when Riggins allowed just one run and Southern Miss was shut out.

Rick Cleveland

Riggins’ best performance to date was a 5-0, complete game shutout on the road against Louisiana-Lafayette. Riggins, a strapping 6-foot, 3-inch, 200-pounder, needed only 100 pitches and seemed as strong in the ninth inning as he had in the first.

You should know that none of that is a shock to Mike Kinnison, the Delta State baseball legend who recruited Riggins out of Hernando High School five years ago.

“Doesn’t surprise me at all,” Kinnison, now the Delta State athletic director, said Wednesday morning. “Hunter knows how to pitch. He’s going to use both sides of the plate. He’s going to change speeds. He’s going to throw strikes. He’s going to get people out.”

Riggins tops out at 94 mph on the radar gun but is more often around 90-92 mph. He commands four pitches: fastball, slider, curve and changeup. Often, he pitches to contact. Often, that contact is a weak ground ball or popup.

Kinnison says he sees similarities between Riggins and Jeremy McClain, another pitcher Kinnison coached back in the late 1990s and the surely best pitcher in Delta State’s remarkable baseball history. McClain, now the athletic director at Southern Miss, finished 15-0 for the Statesmen in 1999. He holds numerous Delta State career records, including innings pitched, victories and strikeouts.

“I was chasing all his records at Delta State,” Riggins said of McClain. 

There are other Delta State-to-Southern Miss baseball connections. Christian Ostrander, the Southern Miss associate head coach and pitching coach, once pitched and then coached pitchers for Kinnison at DSU. Ostrander and current Delta State coach Rodney Batts were Statesmen teammates. When Ostrander left Kinnison’s staff, Batts took his place. The two remain close friends.

So you might think there would be some hurt feelings where Riggins’ move to Southern Miss is concerned. You would be correct in one respect: Delta State surely did not want to lose Riggins. Would you? But once Riggins entered the NCAA transfer portal and was headed elsewhere, Batts and Kinnison apparently were not sad to see him land with Ostrander at Southern Miss.

Says Ostrander, “I knew all about Hunter Riggins back to his high school days. We certainly weren’t actively looking at him while he was at Delta State but once he entered the portal, well, let’s put it this way: Once you’re in the portal you are in it. We knew he was going somewhere. The first thing I did was call Rodney (Batts) and tell him we wanted to talk to Hunter and gauge his interest. Obviously, Rodney was not happy about losing him, and I understand that.

“Anyway, I called Hunter and told him we wanted to be one of the dogs in the hunt. We have a great young pitching staff but we thought we could use one more really experienced starter after losing Walker Powell and Hunter Stanley (two all-conference pitchers) last year.”

For his part, Riggins was surprised to see a Hattiesburg phone number pop up on his cell phone after he entered the portal. “I knew all the connections,” Riggins said. “I wasn’t expecting to hear from Southern Miss.”

Ostrander and Riggins set up a visit. Riggins quickly was sold on Southern Miss.

“It was nothing against Delta State,” Riggins said. “I love the place. I love the baseball culture there. I had done a lot there. I just wanted new scenery. I wanted to try something new and push myself to be better. I’ll tell you this much about Delta State. They are never going to lose. They are always going to win. It’s just the way it is and it goes back a long ways.”

The Deltans are winning now. After a slow start, Delta State has won nine of its last 10. The Statesmen are 12-6 on the season. Meanwhile, Southern Miss is 11-6 after Wednesday night’s 3-2 victory over Alabama. The Golden Eagles open conference play this weekend with a home series against tough Florida Atlantic. Riggins is scheduled to start the second game of the series on Saturday.

Says Ostrander, when asked if he is surprised by Riggins’ instant success at the D-I level, “Well, I’m not going to tell you I expected him to have a point-69 ERA, but I knew the guy could pitch. We had him this fall and he was really good against our guys. I knew he would compete. I knew he knew how to pitch. I knew he would always give us a chance to win.”

Riggins isn’t surprised with his early success either. He says he is only proving what he always believed about himself. That is, he could win at any level.

“There are really, really good players at Division II,” Riggins said. “There are guys that can play anywhere. I would say there are just not as many. Good hitters are going to hit, no matter what level they’re at. I would say when you pitch at DII, there are usually three or four – maybe even five – guys in the other team’s batting order that can hurt you if you miss on a pitch. Here, there’s seven or eight, or maybe all nine, that can hurt you.”

This isn’t the first time a DII player has transferred to Southern Miss and had success. Not that long ago, a DII All American outfielder named Jake Sandlin moved from Georgia College to Southern Miss to play with his younger brother, Nick Sandlin, now of the Major League Cleveland Indians. Jake Sandlin hit for a better average at Southern Miss than he had at Georgia College.

Riggins is now part of a Southern Miss staff that owns a cumulative earned run average of 2.59. There’s a long way to go, but that’s far, far better than last year’s staff that finished with an ERA of 3.74.

“We’re still not hitting on all cylinders,” Riggins said. “We have put it all together – hitting, pitching, fielding – in maybe two or three games. We’re going to continue to get better. The culture here is the same as it was at Delta State. We expect to win. We’re going to win.”

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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.