In 2021, Mississippi State baseball won its own regional, then its own super regional and then its first-ever national championship, painting Omaha maroon and white in the process.
In 2022, Ole Miss sneaked into the NCAA Tournament as the last at-large team chosen, won the Coral Gables regional, white-washed Southern Miss in the Hattiesburg Super regional, before a full-scale Rebel invasion of Omaha. Mike Bianco’s Rebels won the national championship, sweeping Oklahoma in the championship series.
And so, you ask, what can Mississippi’s Boys of Spring do for a 2023 encore? Let’s put it this way: Expectations are sky-high.
Can Ole Miss, despite losing the legend named Tim Elko, repeat? Can Mississippi State bounce back from last year’s aberrational 26-30 finish, which included an unsightly 9-21 record in the Southeastern Conference? Can Southern Miss, which won 47 games and its own regional last year, take its turn in college baseball’s Omaha spotlight?
As we saw last season when Ole Miss vaulted from a 22-17 record (7-14 in the SEC) on May 1 to the national championship on June 26, just about anything is possible in college baseball. The team that lost to Southeast Missouri 13-3 on April 19 for its seventh defeat in nine games somehow won a national championship.
That’s why hope really does spring eternal in college baseball — especially in Mississippi. All three of Mississippi’s Division I baseball powers open at home this weekend. Ole Miss takes on Delaware for a three-game set that will feature three days of celebrating last year’s championship. Southern Miss plays host to a strong Liberty team, which has advanced to the NCAA Tournament three consecutive years. And Mississippi State hosts VMI (16-40 a year ago) from the Southern Conference.
Let’s take a brief look at all three.
If you are looking for reasons why Ole Miss won’t repeat, look no further than these: Elko, Kevin Graham and Justin Bench. All three were uber-productive last season. All three were leaders. All three are gone. Elko led the national champs in home runs (24), runs batted in (75 in 65 games) and slugging (.642). Graham hit .335 with 11 home runs and 51 RBI. Bench was Mr. Dependable, hitting .312 with 17 doubles and 42 RBI, while playing excellent defense wherever Mike Bianco needed him. That’s an awful lot to replace. The Rebels also lost their No. 1 starter Dylan DeLucia and closer Brandon Johnson.
But if you are looking for reason not to write these Rebels off, there are plenty, starting with All-American shortstop Jacob Gonzalez and left-handed ace pitcher Hunter Elliot, who will lead what could be a deeper pitching staff than the one that won the national title.
Replacing Elko’s power largely will fall on Kemp Alderman’s broad shoulders. He hit 11 dingers last year and just might double that this year. Gonzalez also will look to increase his total of 18 homers a year ago.
Newcomers to watch: Tulane transfer outfielder Ethan Groff, who hit .404 last season, can steal a base and will likely hit at the top of the Rebel lineup; Northwestern first baseman Anthony Calarco (.325, 13 HRs 54 RBI); and Delgado Community College outfielder Ethan Lege (.399, 36 RBI). Pitching-wise, look out for freshman Grayson Saunier, who could well be this year’s Rebel version of Hunter Elliot.
Enthusiasm for Southern Miss baseball is at an all-time high. The home season is sold out before the season even begins. Southern Miss starts the season ranked in all the college baseball polls, unusual for program that normally has to play its way into the Top 20. That’s what happens when you win 47 games, your own regional over LSU, and return nearly all of your everyday lineup. No telling where the Golden Eagles would be ranked if likely MLB first round pick Hurston Waldrep hadn’t transferred to Florida.
Pitching depth is a huge concern since the Eagles also lost senior starter Hunter Riggins, plus a school record five pitchers in the MLB draft, including much of a dependable bullpen. Pitching coach Christian Ostrander is often referred to as the Wizard of Oz and he will need to live up to that nickname with so much mound production gone from a year ago.
But head coach Scott Berry has plenty back, including All American right-handed starter Tanner Hall and the everyday players who hit 65 of the team’s 82 home runs a year ago. Hitting-wise, this will be a veteran team that already has experienced much success at the college level.
Pitching-wise, some young arms, including freshmen, must come through, including Mississippi’s Gatorade Player of the Year Nick Monistere of Northwest Rankin and Benton Academy’s JB Middleton, both hard throwers.
Newcomers to watch: Centerfielder Matthew Etzel, a highly touted transfer from Panola, a speedster who tore up the MLB Draft League last summer; left fielder/DH Tate Parker, who led Pearl River to the national junior college championship last spring; and second baseman Gabe Lacy, who hit .329 with 12 home runs and 63 RBI for Tennessee Tech last season.
As if last year’s losing record wasn’t bad enough, Chris Lemonis’ Bulldogs are picked to finish last in the SEC West in the preseason SEC coaches poll. Color this observer shocked if they do. There’s just too much talent and too much tradition in Starkville for that to happen. But here’s the thing about the SEC West: Every team in the division feels that way.
First things first: State does have some key players still around from the 2021 National Champions. Catcher Luke Hancock, outfielder Kellum Clark and shortstop Lane Forsythe have been there. That’s a start. They know what it takes. The rest of the everyday lineup looks good as well, especially with first baseman Hunter Hines and his 16 home runs in the middle of the batting order.
Pitching is the big question mark. Some guys who didn’t get it done last season will have to improve drastically. Last season, the Bulldogs finished last in the SEC with an earned run average of 6.07, a full two runs per game higher than the national championship season. Moving out of the SEC West cellar begins with improving that stat. Memphis transfer Landon Gartman, 7-1 and All American Athletic Conference last season, surely will help in that regard.
Newcomers to watch: Gartman, Texas, transfer pitcher Aaron Nixon; incoming freshman centerfielder Dakota Jordan; New Orleans transfer second baseman Amani Larry; and Samford transfer left fielder Colton Ledbetter.