When Pearl River won the national junior college title, all the Wildcats had a hand on the championship trophy. (Pearl River Athletics)

You know about Ole Miss and Southern Miss baseball teams winning NCAA Regionals and facing off this weekend in a Super Regional at Hattiesburg. You know about Mississippi State winning the national championship of college baseball last season. You know about the tradition of success at Delta State.

Rick Cleveland

College baseball: It gets no better than what we have here in Mississippi. And it goes a lot deeper than those aforementioned. Last week, Pearl River Community College, 30 miles south of Hattiesburg in Poplarville, won the national championship of junior college baseball.

At Enid, Okla., the Wildcats, coached by Jackson native Michael Avalon, lost to Madison (Wisc.) College 11-4 in the first game of a best-of-three championship series and then came back and smoked Madison 19-1 and 7-2 the next two games. Madison entered the championship series having lost only eight of 56 games the entire season.  Pearl River beat them twice in two days by a total of 23 runs.

There’s so much to tell you about those Pearl River Wildcats, including the fact that 12 players off the team have either signed or committed to play for Division I teams in college baseball. That’s not even counting centerfielder Tate Parker of Gulfport, who should be named national junior college player of the year any day now and hasn’t committed to any four-year college yet. He may just go pro.

All those guys will follow a path so many Wildcats have taken over the past few seasons under Avalon. Slugging outfielder Reece Ewing and closer Landon Harper, former Wildcats, are two of the keys to Southern Miss’ success this season. Pitcher Cole Tolbert, who earned the most outstanding pitcher award of the national championship series (16 strikeouts in nine innings), has signed to play at Ole Miss.

The Wildcats lose a slew of players off the championship team, but Avalon believes he has “some really outstanding players waiting in the wings” to make another run next season.

“Pearl River will win as long as he’s there,” says Harper, the Southern Miss closer from Meridian. “Coach Avalon is a winner. No matter where I go or what I do, I am going to remember that man the rest of my life. He makes you not only a better player but a better person.”

The acronym “S.O.A.P.” is all over the PRCC locker room.

Avalon, who grew up in south Jackson and pitched for Forest Hill, operates the Pearl River program, basing every aspect of his coaching on a four word mantra: “Success = Organization, Attitude, Pride.” The acronym is S.O.A.P. You’ll find it anywhere you look in the Pearl River locker room, dugout and clubhouse.

Michael Avalon didn’t come up with the slogan. No, he took it from his dad, the late Billy Avalon, who was a much-beloved English literature teacher and coach in the Jackson area for decades.

Billy Avalon, a gruff-voiced ex-Marine who loved his family, words and sports (probably in that order), was the best coach Michael Avalon ever had, Michael says. And if you talk to students who had Billy as their English or literature teacher at St. Joseph or Madison Central, most will tell you he was the best teacher they ever had. 

Billy Avalon used the S.O.A.P. mantra as a teacher, coach and parent. “I remember him asking me that of success, organization, attitude and pride, which was the most difficult to sustain,” Michael Avalon said. “I said success, and he said, ‘No, it’s pride, pride in everything you do, doing everything the best you can do. That’s the hardest.

“And that’s what we stress in this baseball program. I don’t want them to just be the best players they can be. I want them to be the best students, the best citizens, the best sons, the best teammates they can be.”

Says Harper, the USM closer: “S.O.A.P. was part of everything we did there. I mean, it’s stuff like, if you see a piece of trash on the side of the road, don’t pass it by. Pick it up.”

His players describe Michael Avalon as “intense” as a coach. He apparently got that from his father, too.

Michael (left) and his father Billy Avalon.

“This will tell you how intense my dad was,” Michael Avalon says. “Once, when he was coaching his girls basketball team, he broke a finger calling a timeout.”

He did what?

“Really, he broke his own finger calling a timeout,” Avalon says, chuckling. “When he made the ’T’ sign with his hands, he slammed his fingers on one hand into the other hand too hard. I’m telling you, he was intense.

“At the same time, he was a man who would do anything he could to help anybody he encountered. Not just his students or his players, but somebody he just met on the side of the road.”

Billy Avalon, friends say, was intensely proud of Michael’s coaching success. He made every game he could make. He was there for all the state and region championships his son’s teams won at Pearl River. He was in Enid, Okla., in 2019 when the Wildcats were eliminated from the national championship tournament.

Last July, Billy and Michael were having one of their typically brief daily phone conversations when Billy said, “You know what you gotta do next season?”

“What?” Michael said.

Said Billy, “You gotta go back to Enid and win the whole damned thing.” 

A couple days later, Billy Avalon, 72, was killed in an automobile accident.

This season, as Pearl River won 45 games and ranked at or near the top of national polls, Michael missed his father terribly — at least partly because he knew how much Billy would have enjoyed the success.

Billy missed the Region 23 championship. He missed his son’s team ascending to No. 1 in the national polls. He missed them winning three straight games at Enid to reach the three-game national championship series. He missed the ultimate victory.

Or did he?

Pearl River was leading the championship game 7-2 going into the ninth inning. On the P.A. system, the recording of Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” blared. Besides Proust, Dickens, Tolstoy and Joyce, Billy Avalon loved Springsteen. “Glory Days” was his favorite song.

Says Michael Avalon, “When Glory Days came on, I knew dad was there, knew he was watching. You couldn’t even make that up.”

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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.