‘Dynamic’ offense to help carry No. 1 Pearl River
Dylan Dunaway - PRCC Sports Information Director
POPLARVILLE, Miss. — The reigning National Champion Pearl River baseball team was one of the most balanced offenses in the country last season. Although the Wildcats lost five starters from last year's squad, they should have a chanceto be just as special on that side of the ball again in 2023.
"I feel like this team's makeup is very similar to last year," Pearl River coach Michael Avalon said. "Our goal as a coaching staff was to get more dynamic on offense. We again have physical players who are athletic and can get around the bases. That's what can make us tough to play. Not only can we score from the home run but we can keep pressure on you running the bases, we hope."
Heading into the opener, sophomore Preston Soper (Madison; Germantown) holds down the first base position. The left-handed hitter split time as designated hitter and saw time at third base last season. He finished the year with a .269 average, 29 RBIs, 25 runs, 10 doubles and four homers. Soper was the hero for the Wildcats in the Regional last year, hitting a walk-off single in the semifinal against Hinds.
"Last year, Soper would have been an everyday player and hit in the middle of the order for a lot of teams. With D.K. (Donaldson) there, it made Soper the odd man out," Avalon said. "It's his turn and we look for him to solidify first base. He's such a versatile player that you could see him at any infield position if we needed him there.
"If you asked me who I felt was going to have a big year, I'd place my bet on Preston."
Behind Soper at first base are a pair of freshmen left-handed hitters in 6-foot-5 Cameron Fennell (Long Beach) and 6-foot-3 Caston Thompson (Jayess; Brookhaven Academy).
For the first time in three seasons, Pearl River will have a new second baseman with the exit of former Wildcat Taylor Woodcock. Now manning the position is redshirt sophomore Blaise Breerwood (Poplarville) who transferred to Pearl River from Nicholls State ahead of the 2022 season and was redshirted.
"Blaise deserves this. He's one of the hardest workers that I've ever coached," Avalon said. "He was an incredible teammate last year while he waited his turn. We don't want him to lose that just because he's playing. We still have the expectation for him to be the best teammate."
Southern Miss signee Gabe Broadus (Wilmer, Ala.; Faith Academy) will start the year at shortstop, but don't rule out a few outfield appearances here and there. Broadus is expected to be the table-setter at the top of the lineup once again this year. In 55 games last year, Broadus hit .382 with 11 doubles, three homers and one triple. He also scored 66 runs and drove in 40. His 39 stolen bases were ninth-best in the NJCAA and tops in the MACCC.
"Gabe is our sparkplug," Avalon said. "We're going to ask him to play shortstop this year, but he could move around depending on how things shake up. His responsibility is to defend. He does that well and we know what he is capable of. Offensively, when Gabe goes, we go."
Pearl River has the luxury of deploying an NJCAA All-American at third base with the return of Tennessee signee Alex Perry (McComb; North Pike). While Perry didn't begin the year as the starter in 2022, he quickly won the job and ran with it. He wrapped up the year with a remarkable .385 batting average, 17 homers, six doubles, one triple, 69 runs and 62 RBIs. He was also a threat on the basepaths with 22 steals.
"Alex is the anchor in the middle of the lineup," Avalon said. "We've had Tate Parker the last two years and we knew that we could always count on him. That's what we look to get from Alex. He's going to be a marked man. There's no hiding him when he walks to the plate."
Two other players who could see time at second base, third base or shortstop are freshman infielders Jonah Katsaboulas(Pearl; Brandon) and Marshall Phillips (Hattiesburg; Sumrall).
"Katsaboulas and Phillips are both guys that could do a lot of different things for us," Avalon said. "Phillips is an athletic guy who was the 4A Player of the Year last year. Katsaboulas played for one of the top programs in the state. Both guys have bright futures here. We're going to ask them to move around. They're both athletic enough to do that."
Starting in left field is team captain and redshirt sophomore Logan Walters (Petal). Walters had a very productive season in 2022 while splitting time between designated hitter and left field. At the season's end, he held a .322 batting average with 46 RBIs, 45 runs, 13 doubles and nine homers.
"His experience and maturity are going to be huge," Avalon said. "His physicality was on display last year and he's continued to get stronger and more mature. We look forward to him being a middle-of-the-order player."
Sliding over to center field is going to be sophomore Ian Montz (Lafayette, La.; Acadiana). Montz anchored down right field last season and hit .310 with 13 homers, nine doubles and two triples along the way. He also swiped 21 bags on the year. Defensively, Montz had a .969 fielding percentage with three outfield assists.
"Ian has made the switch back to centerfield which is where he played in high school," Avalon said. "He's a great defender and we know that he can do that again last year. Montz is a big-time left-handed hitter that can hit for average and can run. He's also got some power. We expect him to mature and become a little more consistent at the plate."
Right field will be a little more of a battle going into the season with several players in the running for the everyday job. Among those in the position battle are right-handed hitter and sophomore Blake Hooks (Petal) who will also pitch for the Wildcats, freshman left-handed hitter Conner Ware (Madison; Germantown) and Phillips.
Other outfielders on the roster include Matthew Adams (Hattiesburg), Dane Dutil (Ocean Springs; St. Martin) and Cole Fletcher (Picayune; St. Stanislaus).
Catcher is expected to be a 50/50 timeshare between Alabama transfer Hunter Sute (Tuscaloosa, Ala.; American Christian Academy) and redshirt freshman Parker Ryan (Madison; Jackson Academy). You may also see Triston Hickman(Wiggins; Stone County) behind the dish.
"Over the last few years, we've been spoiled with great catchers like Graham Crawford and Matt Mercer," Avalon said. "We look for Ryan and Sute along with Hickman to give us plenty of depth in the position and continue the strong play we have seen over the years from this position."
Sute redshirted last year at Alabama but had a prolific high school career, hitting .461 across his career.
"Sute is a very balanced player with a simple approach offensively and he's consistent behind the plate defensively," Avalon said. "He is a very good receiver, and we expect him to be able to handle the bat."
Ryan was a redshirt last year for the 2022 squad, but as a high school senior, he hit .317 with 10 doubles and five triples.
"Parker has continued to develop and mature," Avalon said. "I have always thought that the catching position is one of the toughest, if not the toughest position to make the transition from high school to college. Parker has made tremendous strides this year and we are excited about him."
Pearl River has several options at designated hitter, but Hickman is currently leading the battle. In 19 at-bats last season, he hit .211 with three walks, two RBIs and one stolen base.
"Triston is capable of winning the everyday designated hitter job," Avalon said. "He works extremely hard, has all the intangibles and is a great teammate. We are pulling for him to produce. He's one hundred percent capable of doing that."
Depending on the matchup, Thompson, Hooks, Ware or Fennell could all see time at the position.
The Wildcats will take to the road Saturday for their season opener against Wharton County. The doubleheader at Alumni Field on the campus of Southeastern Louisiana will begin at 3 p.m.
PRCC plays its first game at Dub Herring Park on Feb. 14 against Coastal Alabama - South.
Season and single-game tickets for Pearl River baseball are available now and can be purchased at PRCCAthletics.com/Tickets.
CASHLESS BOX OFFICE
To help improve traffic flow and fan experience, PRCC athletics box offices are cashless in 2022-23. Only credit and debit cards will be accepted at the box office. Fans are encouraged to beat the lines and purchase their tickets in advance.
Pearl River livestreams all home games for free at PRCCMedia.com/Gold. Fans who have Roku, Amazon Fire or Apple TV devices can also watch the Wildcat broadcasts by downloading the "Pearl River CC" channel from their app stores.
Games can also be heard on WRJW 1320-AM, 106.9 FM and WRJWRadio.com.