By Shawn Wansley
Jones College Sports Information
ELLISVILLE – The 20th-ranked Jones College Bobcats have eight freshmen on their 10-man roster heading into the 2020 season.
But fourth-year head coach Brooks Buffington believes this is one of the most talented lineups the Bobcats have ever had.
"We have a lot of good freshmen," he said. "My No. 10 guy would have beaten me handily when I was here and I played No. 5. We are very good with depth with this team. I don't think there is anybody that has a No. 8 guy that can touch my No. 8. They are really good.
"It would not shock me if this is one of the best men's team we've ever had. They are just strong all the way down through the lineup."
The Bobcats were 15-5 and tied for second in the MACJC/Region 23 Tournament in 2019. They finished 20th in the NJCAA Division I National Tournament.
The two returning sophomores are Jacob Johnson (North Pike) and James McWilliams (Northwest Rankin).
Buffington said the team will rely on both of those experienced players.
"Jacob and James are really, really solid," he said. "We are expecting a lot of them in terms of their play on the court and leadership."
At the top of the lineup will be international players Gaspar Meda (Argentina) and Kwanda Mbalekwa (South Africa).
"Gaspar was here in the fall and plays with a lot of passion," Buffington said. "He is a strong baseliner and has a lot of talent. He has really quick hands. He is a real solid competitor. Kwanda came here in this spring. He's an all-court player and has all of the shots. He's a little on the short side at 5-6, but is such a good competitor. They are both really good kids and are really helpful with the team environment. They are people you want to be around. They are at a very close level together in terms of who should be 1 or 2."
Daniel Panzica (Brookhaven) and Johnson look to be at the No.'s 3 and 4 spots, respectively.
"Daniel is very unorthodox technically, but is second to none on anticipation," Buffington said. "His court intelligence is very high. He knows where to go with the ball and is very good in doubles. Nothing phases him. He is very aggressive at the net and has a very good personality.
"Jacob played No. 4 last year and was very successful during the season. We expect good results from him this year. He has a big serve and forehand. He is good in doubles. He can move and squeeze the middle at the net. He is solid overall and we have big expectations for him."
Next up in the lineup will be Trey Hilton (Pearl) and McWilliams, who also serves as the college's Baptist Student Union president.
"Fundamentally, Trey is just about technically perfect," Buffington said. "He has great fundamentals and really likes the baseline. He really improved in the fall on capitalizing on short balls and approaching. His net game was a little bit weaker starting the school year, but he has made a lot of improvements there.
"James played 6 for us last year. I think that shows the strength of our team. James is a warrior. He is the BSU president and is a really good caliber person. You know what you are going to get with him. He is a fierce competitor and really wants to win. He just has to not be too hard on himself."
Rounding out the roster will be freshmen Ryan Myers (Madison Central), Greyson Parman (Warren Central), Braxton Wallis (Brookhaven) and Branden McKee (Northwest Rankin).
"All of those guys are solid," Buffington said. "Ryan is pretty much an all-court player. He played doubles a lot in high school and is solid there. He has a big forehand and serve. He really comes in at singles which I really like. He's just outside of the lineup waiting to pounce. Greyson is a very intelligent guy. He has a big serve, forehand and has a lot potential. He can really be a leadership type of guy.
"Braxton is one of our better point manipulators. He works a point well and is very good in doubles. He played doubles with Daniel at Brookhaven and they won the 5A Boys Doubles championship. He has a good one-handed backhand. Branden won 6A Mixed Doubles last year at Northwest Rankin. He is a really good doubles player. He makes more 'Wow!' shots than anybody out here. We just need to make sure we have consistency in what he's doing there. He needs to come to the court every day and bring it."
In the NJCAA Division I preseason rankings, Mississippi Gulf Coast is rated No. 19 with Jones at No. 20, East Central at No. 21 and Itawamba at No. 22.
Buffington believes the Bobcats will do well as they aim for their first MACJC championship since 1985.
"I really think it's going to be us and Gulf Coast," he said. "I feel pretty confident with the guys. We have not won a men's championship since 1985, so our guys are really heading into a positive direction. They are catching up with our girls, who have always been one of the better teams each year. I think we are there now."
The MACJC/Region 23 Tournament will be April 15-18 at MGCCC and the national tournament will be May 11-15 in Tyler, Texas.
James McWilliams of Northwest Rankin is back for his sophomore season at Jones College.Photo/Shawn Wansley, Jones College Sports Information