If the East Central Community College baseball team is to make its 10th straight appearance in the postseason, they will have to do so against what head coach Neal Holliman believes is the toughest non-conference schedule in Mississippi, and maybe in the nation.
Fortunately for Holliman, he returns a good nucleus of players from last season's team that finished 31-18 and lost to Itawamba in the first round of the National Junior College Athletic Association Region 23 playoffs.
The 2019 baseball Warriors hit the diamond on Wednesday, Feb. 13, with a 3:30 p.m. doubleheader against Nunez Community College in Chalmette, La. The first home doubleheader begins at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 17, against Jefferson College out of Hillsboro, Mo.
Gone from the 2018 squad are nine players who signed to continue their baseball careers this spring at either NCAA Division I or Division II institutions. A host of pitchers who combined for 277 innings pitched and 26 wins a year ago have moved on, including Kolby Crowley (University of West Alabama), Tanner Elders (University of West Alabama), Payton Griffin (Delta State University), Dylan Marsh (University of Louisiana Monroe), and Brooks Warren (University of Southern Mississippi). Warren was a 20th round draft choice of the New York Mets last June.
Also gone are position players infielder/outfielder Wyatt Ball (West Alabama), shortstop Jacob Edwards (Southern Miss), designated hitter/first baseman Davis Lott (University of Montevallo), and outfielder Deon Leflore (Mississippi Valley State University).
Despite losing those talented sophomores, Holliman returns a solid group of players who saw significant action last spring, including four full-time starters and two others who started 23 games between them.
Third baseman George Farid (Mississauga, Ontario, Canada) returns after leading the Warriors in hitting last season with a .351 average while knocking 37 runs. He was named 2018 Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges Second Team All-State. Outfielders Ryan Cupit (West Monroe, La.) and Ken Scott out of Clarksdale and catcher Alex Hay, who prepped at Lewisburg High School, also return. Cupit batted .341 in 42 games, while Scott hit .311 last season and led the team in home runs with eight. Hay hit .294 and committed just two errors behind the plate.
"George and Ken give us a solid middle of the lineup, and Ryan provides versatility as he can hit almost anywhere in the lineup," said Holliman, who begins his 13th season at East Central with 352 wins and three MACJC state championships. "The experience and growth that Alex got as a freshman has put him in a position to be one of the best catchers in the league this year."
Farid and Scott have already signed to play at Mississippi College in Clinton next year, while Hay will play baseball for Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn.
Other returning players who saw action last season include Will Ross of Hernando, who can play first base, designated hitter, or take the mound; Anderson Shelley out of Washington School in Greenville, who has a chance to be among the best defensive second basemen in the league according to Holliman; and middle infielder Jay Johnston of Lake, who is working at shortstop in the preseason and has grown "leaps and bounds" since last year said Holliman.
"We have some guys who had solid years last spring, but maybe not as good as they wanted," said Holliman. "I think some of them have a chip on their shoulder and want to do more this year."
Several freshmen are competing for playing time in the field and at the plate. Holliman said Al Dumas of Eupora and redshirt freshman Dakota Kennedy of Choctaw Central have had solid springs and are competing for starting spots in the outfield. Roper Ball of Nanih Waiya is vying for playing time at shortstop. Evan Keith of Vancleave can play first base, third base, or take the mound. Eli Harrison out of Newton County will also see significant time behind the plate.
Holliman said first baseman Cameron Cotton of George County can provide middle of the order power at the plate, while catcher Gavin Bailey of Newton County continues to impress in preseason practices.
"We have a chance to be very solid defensively this year," noted Holliman. "Our players have a 'want-to' attitude toward defense. They want to be better defensively than any team they play. They are taking a lot of pride in that this preseason."
Offensively, Holliman expects the Diamond Warriors to have more diversity throughout the lineup and situationally hit more than previous seasons.
"We have a lot of guys who control the bat well," he said. "More so than previous seasons. If we can put people in position to score, then we have the type of hitters who can get them across the plate."
Only two pitchers return with any significant time on the mound last season. Right-hander Thomas Boothe (Fairhope, Ala., Bayside Academy) had a 2-2 record last year while starting nine games, and right-hander Austin Braswell (Hattiesburg, Presbyterian Christian) appeared in 17 contests with one save.
Boothe will be one of the starters, while Braswell will work out of the bullpen. Right-hander Woody Vowell of Choctaw County will be used as a starter and reliever this year, while redshirt freshman left-hander Chance Shepherd of George County can start or provide long relief.
Javian Stone, a 6-3, 250-pound left-hander from Jackson Provine who played last year at Highland Community College in Kansas, should be another starter for the Warriors. Freshman right-hander Tanner Knight of Eupora, who has performed well in fall and spring practices, is also expected to start.
Holliman is also counting on several newcomers to provided depth on the mound, including right-hander Will Newell of Florence, who is slated to be a closer, and 6-4 right-hander Walker Johnson of East Webster. Others who should see time on the mound are right-handers Cole Mozingo from Northeast Jones, J.T. Carney out of Jackson Academy, and Braxton Rose of Newton County Academy.
"The pitching staff for the most part will be young, but they will be ready," said Holliman.
"Overall, there's been a lot of players competing for playing time this spring, but it's been a healthy competition with everyone pulling for each other."
East Central faces a difficult schedule if it wants to keep the postseason streak alive. In addition to NJCAA Division I Jefferson College, which won 50 games last season and is ranked No. 5 in the 2019 preseason Top 20, the Warriors host perennial Division I powers Shelton State and Wallace State-Hanceville out of Alabama, along with preseason NJCAA Division II No. 1 and defending national champion LSU-Eunice. That's in addition to the MACJC round robin that includes preseason No. 4 Meridian, No. 8 Pearl River, and No. 14 Gulf Coast.
"There's no doubt in my mind that we play the toughest non-conference schedule in our league, but I believe we will be ready to compete," said Holliman.
A complete schedule and roster for the 2019 ECCC baseball team can be found at www.ecccathletics.com. All home baseball action this season can be heard on WKOZ "Cruisin" 98.3 radio or viewed on live stream video at www.eccc.edu/eccc-media.
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East Central Community College