No. 4 Pearl River eyes another run to Enid in '22
Dylan Dunaway - PRCC Sports Information Director
POPLARVILLE, Miss. — It has been three seasons since the Pearl River baseball team saw itself dogpiling after clinching an NJCAA World Series berth. After claiming the MACCC Championship in 2021, Pearl River has a larger goal in mind heading into 2022: getting back to Enid, Okla.
"I think that is one of the tough parts in coaching is making sure that your team understands both the successes that they had and the failures," head coach Michael Avalon said. "Last year we had a very successful season, but I think that we have a sour taste in our mouth after the way that we finished the regional.
"The goal this year is to build upon the success of last year and get back to the regional and hopefully finish this time."
The Wildcats have solid veteran leadership heading into the new campaign. Recently, Matt Mercer (Richton; Petal), Logan Walters (Petal), Leif Moore (Biloxi; St. Martin) and John Griffin Bell (Mobile, Ala.; Faith Academy) were named team captains for the upcoming season.
"One of the things in our program that we preach is having pride in all that you do," Avalon said. "These sophomores have come up with the saying that they want to 'Take Pride in being Elite'. They have asked their teammates to take it to the next level. We've had good teams and have been successful, but this group's goal is to stay humble and take pride in being elite."
ON THE MOUND This season, Avalon expects Pearl River's depth at pitcher to set them apart from the competition. Leading the way for the Wildcats on the mound this season will be four returners who have pitched big innings in their careers.
Those starters are Louisiana-Lafayette signee Sam Hill (Soso; West Jones), Southeastern Louisiana signee Dakota Lee(Purvis), South Alabama signee Moore and Tennessee signee Turner Swistak (Hattiesburg; Oak Grove).
Hill finished 2022 with a 4-1 record, 36 1/3 innings pitched and a 2.48 earned run average. He tallied 42 strikeouts against just 16 walks. Hill's best performance came in the form of a six-inning, one-hit, 10 strikeout performance against LSU Eunice.
Lee was primarily a reliever last season but will be a starter in 2022. Last season he held an incredible 1.93 ERA across 32 2/3 innings. He collected 42 strikeouts and walked just 16 batters.
Moore missed all of 2021 due to injury but was dominant in his freshman season before it was halted. In that season, he held a 2-0 record with a 0.67 ERA through three starts. He struck out 24 against two walks and five hits. He also threw a combined no-hitter, striking out 16 over six innings.
Swistak was second on the team in 2021 in innings pitched with 40. He also tallied 25 strikeouts against just 11 walks.
"We have four sophomores anchoring our rotation who have all signed with Division I schools," Avalon said. "They are experienced, and they have been battle-tested. You have to be excited about that as a coach. If you're good on the mound, you have a chance to be successful every year in baseball."
The Wildcats are also bolstered in the bullpen by the return of closer Byrion Robinson (Brookhaven).
"Byrion is a guy that wants the baseball," Avalon said. "Guys love playing with him and playing behind him. As a coaching staff, we just appreciate the competitiveness and the desire to succeed that he has."
Another impact arm for the Wildcats will be redshirt freshman and Nichols State signee Harper Jordan (Hattiesburg; Presbyterian Christian).
"Harper Jordan made the tough decision to redshirt last year. It wasn't easy for him because everyone wants to play. He was capable of playing last year. It's very gratifying to see that the decision has paid off for them. Harper will be a great piece on the mound."
In addition to his returners, a few highlighted newcomers are Bobby Magee (Petal), Will Passeau (Mobile, Ala.; St. Pauls) and Cole Tolbert (Laurel; West Jones) who should all factor in as relievers.
"Bobby is a backend of the bullpen guy," Avalon said. "He's an electric righthanded arm. Passeau and Tolbert are both guys who are capable of starting for us and may have to wait their turn until next year to start, but we will see them pitch a lot of innings for us."
Some other arms that look to factor in on the mound are returners Mason Smith (Laurel; Northeast Jones), Parker Harrington (Hattiesburg; Oak Grove), Ryan Burt (Columbs; New Hope) and Dawson Strong (Bay St. Louis; St. Stanislaus) as well as newcomers Blake Hooks (Petal), Landen Payne (Ocean Springs; St. Martin), Hayden Nored(Sumrall), Jordan Belsome (Poplarville), Cooper Cooksey (Waveland; Bay), Brennan Jones (Gulfport; West Harrison), Will Martin (Brandon) and J.P. Lyon (Hattiesburg; Oak Grove).
IN THE FIELD The Wildcats have been reliant on the longball the past few seasons, but Avalon expects his offense to look a bit different this season.
"Offensively over the last two years, we had very good years, but we were a little one dimensional," he said. "This year we should still hit with some power, but the thing that is exciting is the athleticism, the quickness, and the ability to put pressure on teams by running the bases well.
"We still have a chance to hit the ball out of the ballpark, but we have several guys who could steal 20 plus bags."
Mercer will catch most of the innings this season after splitting time between catcher and outfield last season. In 70 at-bats, the Troy signee hit .391 with four homers, eight doubles and 19 RBIs. Also vying for time behind the plate are freshmen Parker Ryan (Madison; Jackson Academy) and Triston Hickman (Wiggins; Stone).
"Matt is going to play a lot more behind the plate this year, but it wouldn't surprise me if he plays more outfield at the four-year level," Avalon said. "He's just that athletic. He never questions it, he just goes to work. He's a leader and he isn't afraid to be verbal. We expect him to be an anchor in the middle of the lineup."
Returner D.K. Donaldson (Gulfport; West Harrison) will get most of the reps at first base, but freshman Alex Perry (McComb; North Pike) could see time at the position as well. Donaldson hit .340 with 10 RBIs in limited action last season.
Second base will be manned by third-year player Taylor Woodcock (Pass Christian; West Harrison) who battled injury for much of last season.
"Woodcock's experience is invaluable," Avalon said. "I've been very impressed with him this fall and in the early part of this spring in his humbleness, work ethic and his emotions. We look for him to have a big year for us."
Taking the other spot in the middle infield will be the slick-fielding John Griffn Bell (Mobile, Ala.; Faith Academy).
"I don't know that I will ever coach a better defender," Avalon said of his South Alabama signee, who hit .271 with six homers last season. "Anytime that you can have an elite defender at shortstop it makes your team so much better and it gives you confidence that any ball is going to be an out. The thing that J.G. brings to the table that may be better than his fielding is his leadership and energy. This team feeds off him."
Preston Soper (Madison; Germantown) and Perry should both see time at third base. Avalon compared Soper to former Wildcat standout and current Auburn Tiger Bryson Ware (Gluckstadt; Germantown).
"Soper reminds us of Bryson Ware. He's a sleeper out of Germantown," Avalon said. "He's super athletic, strong and physical. He's a left-handed hitter that we expect to hit in the middle of the order. He's got a chance to be a very good hitter at this level."
In left field, redshirt freshman Logan Walters (Petal) should see a lot of the reps with Burt seeing time at the position when he isn't featuring on the mound.
"Logan Walters is a guy that we are extremely excited about," Avalon said. "He made the tough decision last year to redshirt. The thing that was impressive about him was the way that he worked while he waited. We expect a big year from him."
Burt, a Nichols State signee, played a reserve role last season but looks to see more time in the lineup this year.
"Burt is a very important piece for us," Avalon said. "He's a left-handed hitter and a left-handed pitcher. You can never have enough of those. He swung it really well in the fall and so far this spring. We expect him to be an everyday hitter. He can play all of the outfield positions for us."
The surest thing of all the positions is NJCAA First Team All-American and reigning MACCC Player of the Year Tate Parker (Gulfport; West Harrison) manning center field.
Parker was a force in the middle of the Wildcat order last season, hitting .391 with 18 homers and 65 RBIs. He also had 14 doubles and 21 walks.
"Tate was a constant threat last year. You always knew what you were going to get with him," Avalon said. "We expect the same thing from him this year. He's a very humble, hard-working, blue-collar kid, so I don't expect him to change there. "He's not a loud guy, but he's a leader in the way he goes about his business and the way he does his work."
Avalon expects Ian Montz (Lafayette, La.; Acadiana) to be a staple in right field.
"Montz was highly recruited out of high school and has all the tools that you look for in an outfielder," Avalon said. "He is an exciting player and capable of playing all 3 outfield positions."
Designated hitter may look different from game to game as Walters, Mercer, Perry and Burt will all feature at the position.
A player who could see time at second base, third base or any of the outfield positions is freshman Gabe Broadus (Wilmer, Ala.; Faith Academy).
"We've had a lot of Swiss-Army knives over the past few years with guys like Wiley Cleland and Dalton Cummins. He will hit in the leadoff position to start the season and is capable of changing the game on the bases," Avalon said. "You will see him at second base, left field, center field and next year he is capable of moving over to short after JG departs."
Another utility player for the Wildcats will be Cole Fletcher (Picayune; St. Stanislaus).
PRESEASON RANKING Pearl River will open the season ranked No. 4 in the NJCAA preseason rankings.
The JUCO Baseball Blog has the Wildcats ranked as the No. 2 team in NJCAA Division II. Additionally, PBR JUCO has the Wildcats ranked at No. 7.
TICKETS Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased at PRCCAthletics.com/tickets.
TUNE IN All home Pearl River Wildcat baseball games are livestreamed 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.
Selected games can also be heard on WRJW 106.9 FM and 1320-AM. Audio will can be heard at WRJWRadio.com by clicking on the "Wildcat" to access the Sports Audio Portal.